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More Talk Than Action : Child Care Comes of Age as Issue, Yet Need Grows

Times Staff Writer

National magazines write about it, politicians embrace it like the American flag, and companies providing it get a lot of publicity.

Child care, it seems, is the hottest workplace issue of our time, touted as a “trend growing rapidly” by one of a host of child-care consultants now in business promoting it to employers and as a “bottom-line issue” by one of the nearly two dozen child-care coordinators who have emerged in local governments throughout the state. One corporate vice president recently predicted that child care will become a job benefit as common as parking.

But so far there is more talk than action. Despite the public attention, shortages remain acute, governments are not providing new spaces fast enough to meet the need, and few companies are doing anything about it.

As a result, only 9% of the child-care need is being met in California, said Dr. Robert Cervantes, assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education’s child development division, based on a recent study.

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“In other words, for every nine kids, there are 91 more waiting at the gate,” Cervantes said.

The unserved are likely to be the so-called “latchkey” children left alone after school, “taking care of themselves,” he said, or younger children who “get a patchwork of child care, passed around informally to friends or relatives.”

“We have a long way to go before we have a responsive system to meet the needs of the citizens of California,” Cervantes added.

In Los Angeles County there is a shortage of 289,297 spaces, county child-care coordinator Kathleen Malaske-Samu said, up about 25,000 spaces from three years ago. The city’s share of that shortage is 53,000 spaces, said its child-care coordinator, Patsy Lane.

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In Southern California, only about 100 companies provide any child-care assistance, local experts say, and only about 10 have on-site child-care centers. “Employers are not beating down anybody’s door to do this,” said Sandra Burud, a Pasadena-based child-care consultant.

Nationwide, only between 4,000 and 5,000--out of a total 6 million--companies provide some form of child-care assistance, according to the Conference Board, a New York-based business research organization.

Need Grows

Meanwhile, the need for care keeps growing. The percentage of children under 6 with working mothers--under 40% in 1975--rose to about 52% by 1987, according to Peter Morrison, director of the RAND Corp. population research center.

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“By 1995 it is projected to be at approximately 64%,” he said.

Despite the demand, there are major impediments to starting up and maintaining child-care services, officials say. These include the costs of real estate, of preparing a site to hold children safely, and of meeting costly state-required adult-to-child ratios in staffing, which take up an estimated 80% of operating costs.

A large number of child-care providers go out of business, many after as little as a year of operation. About 49% of Los Angeles County’s licensed family day-care homes, which care for six to 12 children in private residences, shut down before their three-year state licenses expire, according to a study done by Crystal Stairs, a private, nonprofit child development agency in Los Angeles.

The county has 6,539 such homes and 2,395 centers, which care for 13 or more children. Centers had only a 4% closure rate, the study said, attributing this to the greater investment involved in starting them up.

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Other studies by Crystal Stairs have found that some areas in the county, such as the Westside and the South Bay, have an excess of child care in the 2- to 5-year-old category while others have a dearth. The Westside and beach communities have about 4,000 more spaces than they need for those age groups, Mary Hruby, Crystal Stairs’ project coordinator for child referral services, said, while South-Central and Inglewood have a shortage of about 2,200 spaces.

Lack of Infant Care

All areas are lacking in infant care, however.

“Los Angeles County licensed care available for children under the age of 2 only meets 22.2% of the need,” she said.

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Also disturbing is a lack of statewide or local programs to monitor the quality of care in centers and homes, though experts in the field say quality of care is as important as filling shortages. Generally, poor quality is when a child is just parked somewhere with a disinterested custodian who has too many charges. Good quality is defined as a positive environment with enough staffers, play materials and programs available to enhance a child’s life.

“If you don’t have quality services, I’m not sure what you’re contributing to the life of the child or the working parent or the future or anything,” city coordinator Lane said.

Inspectors for the state Department of Social Services, which licenses providers, visit centers only once a year and most homes only once in three years, when licenses are due to be renewed.

And then, they only monitor the law’s minimal health and safety requirements, said David Smith, chief of the children’s programs bureau in the community care licensing division of the department.

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“In terms of actual content of the program and how well they carry it out, we don’t evaluate that,” he said.

Cost Factor

Even the 10 referral agencies in Los Angeles County, which are the prime resources available to parents to find providers with space available, have little sense of the quality of the referrals they make. Parent demand has increased the agencies’ workload 33% in the last five years, said Cervantes, but state funding for them has remained the same.

Thus the referral staffs are unable for the most part to even visit the centers and homes they are listing. “They can’t keep track because they’re not staffed or funded at a sufficient level to do that,” he added.

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One of the big impediments to high quality is cost, which ranges from $55 to $140 a week and up.

“Quality costs money,” said Hruby, because the best places exceed state requirements for staffing (which are one adult for every four infants and one adult for every 12 children age 2 to 5). Quality providers also tend to have better-educated staffers trained in early childhood development, she said.

“The issue facing anybody seeking child care is how affordable is a high-quality place that charges $100 a week when you are a working parent that can only afford $50,” Hruby asked. “Price often puts quality out of the picture.”

Potential costs seem to be a major factor in the reluctance of companies to become involved, said Charles J. Buchta, executive vice president of First Interstate Bank. He is chairman of both the Los Angeles County Child Care Advisory Board, which advises the county on programs, and the Alliance of Business for Childcare Development, which promotes child care in the downtown business community.

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Many employers worry that the cost of child care could mushroom as have health-care costs.

“A long time ago when the cost of health care was relatively inexpensive, companies felt they could provide a benefit to the employees,” Buchta said. “That has now come back to kick them in the shins, if you will, because it is becoming prohibitively expensive.

“You look at family care, be it child care or elderly care, and it’s like, ‘Oops, if I get into this, maybe here we go again.’ ”

Savings Seen

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Consultant Burud, however, did a study of Union Bank’s child-care center in Monterey Park during its first year of operation. She found that the company saved money from reduced job turnover, absenteeism and shortened maternity leaves.

“Because of the direct link to productivity,” Burud said, “companies can make more money with child care than without it.”

Another frequently mentioned impediment is the cost of liability insurance, Burud noted, but she maintains that is a false issue. “The claim rate with child care is very, very low,” she said, adding that liability insurance premiums are only 3% of a provider’s business cost.

The specter of cost may also be a red herring.

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“That may be given as the reason but I think it’s more subtle than that,” said Eric Nelson, a consultant with Child Care Planning Associates in Irvine.

“We have to understand that the corporate decision-makers are still individuals who personally have never had to grapple with child care. As a result they simply don’t understand the problem,” Nelson said.

Recruitment Tool

Child-care assistance could be a valuable recruitment tool, said Harry Usher, managing director of the Los Angeles office of Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive recruiting firm. But he noted: “We have not found it to be one a lot of companies are using.”

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Child care is “one of many serious issues that have to be faced when relocating to Los Angeles,” he said. “When compared with home prices and transportation issues, it becomes another factor that makes it difficult to lure people into the L.A. area.”

“There are more employers doing child care than there ever have been,” Burud said. “But if I look at the companies we have actually opened programs for compared with the companies that called us, it’s probably a 500-to-1 ratio.”

Still, Richard Wirth, head of the city of Los Angeles’ Child Care Advisory Board, said, “The awareness of day care among the private sector has really increased.” He said it is only a matter of time before programs catch up.

A lobbyist who is executive director of the governmental affairs council of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, Wirth said that though only a handful of developers include child-care facilities in commercial and residential projects, “there’s a great deal more planning them in future projects. I’m very optimistic.”

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“I think enlightened businesses realize they have employees who have children and they lose any number of (work) days because of that,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus, who has led city efforts on the issue. “And I think they recognize it’s in their best interests to provide some kind of care.”

Child-Care Proposals

To be sure, there has been progress. Nationally, a $1.75-billion Democratic Party-backed measure to expand day-care programs throughout the country passed in the Senate in June, and President Bush has proposed expanding the existing tax credit for child-care costs.

And California has a new tax credit allowing companies to write off 50% of what they contribute to qualified child-care plans for their employees’ children and 30% of contributions to child-care information and referral services. The state has also created 45,000 new child-care spaces to serve latchkey children.

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Among local businesses, Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. are jointly planning one child-care center for their employees, and the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation plans another for the children of entertainment workers.

Trammel Crow Co. has included a child-care center in a 400-acre mixed-use development in the City of Commerce, and IDM Corp. built one into the first phase of its Greater Los Angeles World Trade Center in Long Beach.

In the public sector, the city Department of Water and Power plans a child-care facility at its downtown Los Angeles office, and the Air Quality Management District plans one at its new headquarters in Diamond Bar.

Los Angeles County has opened two child-care centers at its County-USC and Olive View medical centers and plans a third at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

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City Programs

The city of Los Angeles has its own child-care policy and a day-care center in City Hall South for 100 children of city and federal government employees. The city also has a “vendor preference policy,” the first of its kind in the country, to give companies with a child-care policy preference in seeking city contracts worth up to $25,000.

A California Child Care Initiative, organized by the BankAmerica Foundation with 33 companies and local governments to help recruit more child-care providers, has helped create more than 2,000 new family day-care homes around the state in the last four years, Bank of America Vice President Rosemary Mans said.

But “burnout” among providers severely limits such efforts, and the solution is unclear.

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“It’s not unlike the mothers of the 1950s,” county coordinator Malaske-Samu said. “You spend 10 to 12 hours a day with six young children and that can be exhausting.”

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Barbara Rodriguez, a Los Angeles day-care operator who quit after a year when she became pregnant. While in business, she said, she worked between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. caring for two infants, for up to $100 a week, and two 3-year-olds, for up to $75 a week. But most didn’t come every day, she said, so she never knew from week to week how much she would earn.

“You have children raised by different people and different philosophies, and they’re not always in synch,” she said. “They had different ways, down to different diapering. It’s hard. You want to please everybody.

“There are a lot of rewards. You see how the kids crawl and walk. If I did it again, I’d probably try to get a license (to care for) more children so that I could afford to get a helper. It’s very hard by yourself because there are no breaks.”

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