Business Gives Caregivers A Leg Up

Its new tack: Improving quality of community programs

It was a magnanimous corporate gesture--and a magnificent white elephant. On the northern outskirts of Rochester, N.Y., Wegman's Food Markets Inc. built a lavishly furnished day-care center, ringed by playground equipment, for 222 of its employees' children. It spent up to $500,000 a year to keep the operation going before figuring out that, at best, the perk served just 1% of workers. Employees had to drive as far as 20 miles to drop off their kids, and Wegman's many part-timers didn't need the all-day service the center was set up for.

Wegman's sold off its center last year to Care-a-lot Child Care Inc., a small local operator. Today, the facility is the focus of a very different sort of corporate largesse: Instead of granting massive subsidies, a group of area employers underwrite training there. Care-a-lot's entire staff went through a year of classes to get national accreditation, and one teacher gets funding to attend college classes in early childhood education. The modest aim is to improve employees' child care by producing better caregivers who stay longer in their jobs.

The program, called Teach Plus, is an initiative of the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care (ABC), a consortium of 22 companies that includes Amoco, AT&T, IBM, and Mobil as well as Xerox and Kodak in Rochester. In 1995, ABC announced a six-year commitment to raise $100 million to create and improve child care, after-school care, and elder care in communities where it operates.

"LONG VIEW." The strategy represents a telling shift: Businesses hope to upgrade their workers' dependent care via programs that lift quality for everyone, employees or not. "We're taking the long view," says Marilyn Timbers, Life Cycle program manager at Xerox Corp. A stronger community "is going to attract good workers." In Rochester, ABC members are spending $750,000 this year on teacher training, curriculum development, and a warehouse for caregivers' food and supplies--not to mention truckloads of copier paper and empty film canisters for crafts projects.

As a human resources strategy, so-called community development is both unproven and problematic. The beneficial effects are diffuse, and the payback is hard to measure. Although early proj-

ects such as those in Rochester have delivered promising results, executives at some ABC participants are frustrated by the venture's lack of accountability. The absence of hard data, says Joe W. Layman, Eastman Kodak Co.'s director of human resources, "is one shortcoming of the ABC model."

But employers know that the alternatives are more expensive and no simpler. Building an on-site day-care center such as Wegman's, for example, requires at least $1 million in capital and just the right employee demographics; even then, such centers serve, at most, a few hundred workers. Subsidizing employees' care requires similar resources.

ABC's efforts are more modest: Its members commit $800,000 a year. Dollar for dollar, though, the investment serves far more employees. In Rochester, for example, 65 home-based child-care providers, nominated by parents who work at ABC companies, get training in health and safety, marketing, and communicating with parents. It's "far more than just how to keep your fire extinguisher filled," says provider Terry Weinstein, who also got money to take an art class and $300 for new supplies.

SATISFACTION. What do ABC companies get in return? Anecdotal evidence suggests that community development can lift the bottom line. Exxon Corp. employees in Baton Rouge, La., get preference for in-home sick-child care, which ABC helped start, so they spend fewer days away from the office. Xerox engineer Don Confarotta stayed at work while an ABC-sponsored agency called Services for Seniors took his elderly stepfather to daily radiation treatments.

Most ABC companies, though, are looking for something more tangible, and several are pressing agencies and providers for quantifiable measures of progress. Kodak's Layman now requires reports detailing how many employees participate in each service and asks day-care providers to send parents periodic satisfaction surveys. The initiatives may foster better services for Rochester--but shareholders still want a bottom-line result.

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