Jane Sherburne was an ambitious junior associate at the venerable Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering nine years ago--and she was also the mother of a 4-year-old boy. The day Hurricane Gloria thundered through the capital, closing Ben’s nursery school, her entire professional future flashed--and nearly crashed--before her eyes.
In desperation, because two of Sherburne’s partners needed her help and because Ben’s father was out of town, she brought the child to work. Busied with coloring books, Legos and a stern lecture to be quiet or Mom’s career was history, Ben was doing fine while his mother and her colleagues stewed over their papers at a conference table. Their concentration was abruptly shattered when a tiny voice piped up.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . . . “
Sherburne, now a partner at the law firm and the mother of two more children, still shudders at the memory:
“I watched one of my partners. This shiver started in his toes and went right up to his face. I thought it was the end of my career.”
Instead, it was the beginning of one of the country’s first backup child-care centers. Nearly a decade later, as large and small businesses alike follow suit, the Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering facility is cited as the model for a slice of the work/family menu that is now regarded not as corporate benevolence, but as economic necessity.
Backup child care has become “a business imperative,” said Susan Seitel, who edits a Minneapolis-based periodical called the Work/Family Newsbrief. “It’s all about billable hours.”
Few organizations are prepared to minister on-site to sick children. But a growing number of companies have recognized that if an employee can’t get to work because of a glitch in child care, it’s money down the corporate drain. No one has come up with an exact number, but more and more businesses are setting aside on-site space to provide temporary child care in emergency situations.
As the newest piece of the work/family equation, backup child care remains chiefly the province of big, successful companies or small, forward-thinking enterprises. Those who have embraced it are adamant that backup child care is vital to the modern work force.
“This is not about philosophy,” said Ellen Reynolds, a managing director at Bankers Trust in New York. “It’s about productivity, productivity, productivity.”
The two backup child-care centers at the Bankers Trust buildings in Manhattan and in Jersey City, N.J., turned out to be a godsend when a number of local schools were closed during an asbestos scare, Reynolds said. Bankers Trust is also part of a consortium of Manhattan financial organizations that share a larger backup center on Wall Street, accommodating up to 40 children from 3 months to 12 years old at a nominal hourly cost.
“Whether we’re talking about a secretary or a senior-level manager, we know we’re at a loss if that person doesn’t come to work because of a child-care problem,” Reynolds said.
“I don’t think anyone would say this is a soft and fuzzy place,” she added. “We’re very lean and mean and tough. But where possible, we try to provide people with some crutches to get over the hard spots.”
Yet when the subject is day care, said Richard Stolley, this awareness is confined to a narrow stratum of American business. Stolley, founder of People magazine, is now a senior editorial adviser at Time Warner Inc. He also serves on the board of directors of the Child Care Action Campaign.
Stolley travels the country to meet with top executives. “You start talking about on-site child care to businessmen--and even businesswomen--and they turn white,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about it.”
A major problem in even introducing a discussion of on-site child care--backup or otherwise--among most employers is that “at the level where the decisions have to be made, few of those involved have ever wrestled with the problem.” With the bottom line on their minds, “what they’re really looking for is empirical studies,” Stolley said.
Still, survey after survey shows backup child care to be a source of employee anxiety, said Judi Presser of Work/Family Directions. The Boston consulting firm has found “people reporting that they miss up to one to three days of work per month” because of child-care emergencies, she said.
Employees say they have no role models, since no previous generation has seen so many single mothers or working couples in the labor force, Presser said. A near-universal lament is that workers are unprepared when their baby-sitters get sick, have an accident on the way to work or quit on a moment’s notice. Unexpected school closings also wreak domestic havoc--and even predictable holidays can throw working families into a tailspin.
Working parents have “this kind of card-house arrangement that we have struggled so hard to build,” said Seitel of Work/Family Newsbrief. “A child-care failure of any kind just knocks down all the cards.”
But many parents put on child-care blinders, Seitel said.
“Everything is just perfect until something goes wrong,” she said. “And we pretend that it’s not going to happen to us.”
As the working parents of two children, Mayer and Sharon Berg of Minneapolis were only too familiar with the potholes that even the most perfect child-care arrangements can encounter. Six and a half years ago, they turned the nightmare of necessity into a dream invention called Club Kid, catering to families whose child care has suddenly cratered. From 7:30 a.m. until midnight children from 18 months to 10 years old can now dance, finger-paint or operate computers at five facilities in the Twin Cities area.
“With so many working parents and the way things have been going, there was definitely a need,” Berg said.
Nancy Platt, the director of work/family services at Time Warner in New York, said her company’s financial overseers have not quibbled with the $400,000 it costs each year to subsidize Time’s backup child-care facility.
“We’ve never done a cost-benefit analysis,” Platt said. “You can add it up yourself and see the savings, never mind the improved morale.”
Top-echelon executives and junior-level clerks are equally likely to use the services on an upper floor of the Time-Life tower, said Patti Maltese, manager of the 1 1/2-year-old center. Up to 30 children per day may use the backup program, Maltese said; each employee parent is entitled to send a child there for free for up to 20 days in a calendar year.
“The kids love it,” Maltese said. “It’s like going to work with Mom or Dad.”
At the Cal-Tot Child Care Center in the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in Downtown Los Angeles, assistant director Lalila Rivera reported a similar chorus of enthusiasm from parents in the City Hall vicinity. Cal-Tot is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and state employees are given priority for the 80 full-time child-care slots that are available to children from six weeks to six years of age.
Rivera said parents can call to see if there are openings when the need for backup child care arises. Per-day prices vary, depending on the child’s age.
“They should have started this a long time ago,” said Rivera, pointing to the decline in employee absentee rates since backup care became an option. “I think every building should have one.”
Backup child care also turns out to be a leveling experience. At the staid Manhattan law firm of Cravath, Swain and Moore, attorneys who were born in three-piece suits trip over Brio trains in the firm’s backup care facility right alongside the parents who are secretaries and mail clerks.
“It’s the great equalizer,” said Barbie White, who runs the backup care center at Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington.
White giggled impishly, as if to concede that corporate attorneys are not always known as a fun bunch.
“It’s neat to watch the attorneys turn into parents,” White said.