Limited Day-Care Hours Strain Working Parents
As a scheduler for a major entertainment studio, Julia Perkins knows a thing or two about deadline pressure. But the real crunch time comes after work.
When she hits the bricks at 5:30 p.m., Perkins has exactly 30 minutes to navigate the gridlock from West Hollywood to Westwood to pick up her son by 6 p.m. His after-school program charges tardy parents a dollar-a-minute late fee. More taxing is the anxious look on her 7-year-old’s face if he’s the last one waiting come closing time.
“The stress of that half-hour is just incredible,” she says.
Sick of Racing Against the Clock
Call it the Six O’Clock Scramble. Perkins and millions of parents nationwide are struggling to arrange ‘90s work lives around day-care schedules better suited to a bygone era. In a consumer society where night and weekend hours are de rigueur for many businesses, the vast majority of child-care centers remain geared for parents who work 9 to 5.
That doesn’t reflect the reality of the 24-hour economy. In Los Angeles County alone, 19% of workers are on a swing shift or night shift, not to mention all those folks with day jobs whose hours are expanding because of overtime or lengthy commutes. Meanwhile, just 2% of L.A. County child-care centers accommodate unconventional work schedules, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. Experts say the razor-thin profit margins and heavy staffing requirements of the child-care business simply won’t justify extended hours.
“It’s one of those restrictive items that keep parents from having a choice in child care,” said Shelley Waters Boots, research director for the network. She says most parents who work long hours or odd schedules turn to relatives, nannies or family day-care providers instead. Although convenient, those options may lack the social and educational benefits that make center-based care so appealing.
Which is why Catherine and Allan Comeau of Mar Vista take to the roads in the thick of rush hour to keep their kids enrolled in high-quality, center-based programs.
It’s a daily adventure that requires precision, flexibility, a Thomas Guide and at least one telephone rendezvous to figure out who needs to be where and when. Allan is a psychologist who has stopped booking appointments in the late afternoon so he can be in Westwood by 6 p.m. to fetch 7-year-old Lilly. Catherine must leave her job at the Getty Center by 5 p.m. to pick up 3-year-old Julian by 6 p.m. from his Venice day-care center.
That neat division of labor goes awry when one of the parents--usually Allan--hits a workday snag. The burden then falls to Catherine to tear away from work early to fetch both children before the 6 p.m. witching hour. It’s a zigzag, traffic-choked commute that leaves her hands aching from clutching the steering wheel. . She figures she ponied up $100 in late fees last year, delayed by gridlock or work responsibilities.
“I don’t care about the money. I just hate being late for my child and his teachers,” Catherine said.
The Comeaus are luckier than most. He’s self-employed and can set his own hours. She has a sympathetic boss and a job that allows her to take work home. And they have each other to share the load.
The safety net for single parents like Perkins is much more tenuous. The divorced mom can sometimes count on her stepmother or her boyfriend in a pinch, or maybe another parent from her son Kelly’s school in a real emergency.
When her boss changed her shift to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a few months, Perkins was forced to hire someone to pick up Kelly from his after-school program--a $100-a-month expense she could ill afford. As it is, she nervously eyes the clock starting around 5 p.m. each workday, hoping no last-minute assignment will keep her from bolting at 5:30 p.m. It’s an anxiety that dogs her even in sleep.
“I have this bad dream that I’m going to have to work late and I’ve forgotten who I’ve asked to pick up my son,” she says. “. . . [If] Kelly’s program stayed open a half-hour later, it would make all the difference in the world.”
Day-care center operators say there isn’t enough financial incentive for them to keep their facilities open late. Craig Hammer, director of operations for Serendipity Early Care and Education Center, points out that three of his family’s five centers are open 12 hours a day as it is: 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. At the end of the day, his teachers are bone-tired and ready to go home to their own kids.
He estimates 10% to 20% of his parents might find it convenient to come at 7 p.m. or later. But even if he could extract extra fees for the service, he figures it wouldn’t be worth the added expense and staffing headaches.
He and others also worry that extended hours would encourage some parents to leave their children in day care for too long. Marynell Whitcomb’s Los Angeles day-care center, A Child’s Place, is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. However, she lets parents know in no uncertain terms that their children aren’t allowed to be there 11 hours a day.
“Kids just can’t take it,” she said. “They burn out.”
Whitcomb has also stopped cutting tardy parents any slack. She used to grant a five-minute grace period before the $1-a-minute penalty would kick in. That is, until she witnessed parents chatting on cell phones in the parking lot until 6:05 p.m. while children and teachers waited inside.
“That was it,” Whitcomb said. “Most parents are great, but some will really push the envelope.”
Late Hours, Long Commutes
Just Plane Kids is among that rare breed of child-care center that caters to parents who work long hours and odd schedules. Open from 5:45 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, the Palmdale facility was built by the government to serve employees of the federal air traffic control station there.
As many as 49% of the center’s 60 preschool spaces and 28 after-school slots can be filled by children from the surrounding community. Ironically, it is those parents, not the air traffic controllers, who are the biggest consumers of the center’s extended hours, according to center director Terry Moss.
The reason is that many of those parents commute up to 70 miles each way from the Antelope Valley to jobs in the L.A. Basin. Some children at Just Plane Kids remain at the center 12 to 13 hours a day.
Moss says her nonprofit center wouldn’t be able to make it without free rent from the federal government and a secure site that allows her to keep just one teacher on staff instead of two in the late hours.
“I honestly don’t know how you replicate this model,” she said. “We’re barely making ends meet.”
Some parents say longer hours at day-care centers wouldn’t solve their time crunch anyway. Catherine Comeau says picking up her children any later would only push back the nightly routine of dinner, baths and bed, making everyone tired and cranky. She dreams of 40 hours’ pay for a 30-hour week.
“We could go to the park before dinner,” she mused. “Now that would be heaven.”
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Working Odd Hours
Percentage of work forcewith nontraditional hours:
L.A. County: 19%
Percentage of child care centers open nontraditional hours:
L.A. County: 2%
One-third of working poor mothers work weekends.
Mothers who lack access to a child care center within 10 minutes of home are about twice as likely to quit their jobs as those who are close to care.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; California Child Care Resource and Referral Network; National Child Care Survey; Child Care and Employment Turnover Study.
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* An extensive list of child care resources and the complete Caring for Our Children series are available on the Times’ web site:
* Work & Family Connection is a clearinghouse of news and information about work-life issues and practices: 800-487-7898
Compiled by MALOY MOORE / Los Angeles Times
* FOR THE RECORD
The July 25 story gave an incorrect web address for NaniNet. The correct address is: