Taking care of kids when your childcare worker is sick

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June 23, 2003 // UPDATED 10:51 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

For Downtown workers, flexible-care facilities provide convenience and powerful employee benefits

If you have kids in daycare, at some point the person who takes care of them will get sick, take a vacation or otherwise be unavailable. But if you can\'t pawn off the little tykes on an unsuspecting relative, neighbor or spouse, what do you do?

Stay home and miss work - unless you have reliable backup care.

Parents aren\'t the only ones frazzled; coworkers must make up the work, and employers lose an estimated $3 billion nationally, according to a nonprofit childcare advocacy group.

So it\'s no surprise that with 160,000 workers Downtown, two groups offer backup childcare here: ChildrenFirst, a program only available to companies that have signed up, and New Horizon, 111 Marquette Ave., which offers backup/flexible care to anyone, as long as there\'s room.

\"We have an at-home nanny. I had never brought my kids to a daycare setting. I was impressed by ChildrenFirst,\" said Ann Aronson, senior vice president of Ruder Finn, a public relations firm.

New Horizon accommodates summertime scheduling struggles by waiving setup fees. According to Company Operations Vice President Chad Dunkley, \"Typically, there is a $50 registration fee that\'s charged to families when they enroll. We waive those fees if the family is just enrolling for a week or small portion of the summer.\"

ChildrenFirst

ChildrenFirst is a nationwide system of corporate-sponsored backup childcare centers. A company purchases a membership and employees may use the childcare center as a benefit 21 days a year, for kids 3 months to 13 years old. Some companies make their workers pay a $10-$20 co-pay.

Amy Crawford, ChildrenFirst executive vice president of sales, client services and marketing, said the centers offer employees fairness as well as convenience.

\"When childcare came onto the agenda of companies years ago, the reaction was to build their own daycare center,\" Crawford said. \"But once that daycare center is full, there\'s usually a waiting list and that means not all employees can use this benefit. By offering backup care, we can cover so many more employees with the benefit than just a standalone daycare center.\"

Parents at ChildrenFirst companies must preregister for the service. Then, they can reserve a spot for their child as late as the same day they need care.

Downtown boasts two ChildrenFirst centers that serve companies such as the Faegre & Benson law firm or Target Corp. Unless you plan on bringing your kids to the centers at Gaviidae Common or on 10th Street, you probably won\'t find them.

For security reasons, ChildrenFirst centers are hidden. At first glance, the 10th Street center looks like unleased office space, with frosted windows and a nondescript entrance. Beside the locked door are a keypad, speaker and security camera. If you have a reason to be there, staff will buzz you in.

Once inside, staffers greet you in a cheerily lit waiting room that has a fish tank at knee level. Though inside the center, you\'re still in a secure area. Entrance to the children\'s rooms requires a security code and a staff escort.

\"We hold security very high. And since we\'re only available to companies that have the membership, we don\'t have to advertise where we are,\" said Marit Kaltved, a ChildrenFirst education director.

Ninety percent of their teachers hold bachelor\'s degrees in early childhood development or elementary education. Forty percent have master\'s degrees.

\"From a teaching standpoint, this is the crme-de-la-crme,\" Kaltved said. \"We show parents what they should be expecting from their childcare providers.\"

There is one staffer for every two infants, or four toddlers, or six preschoolers or eight school-age kids. All ratios are lower than state standards.

If parents request this, ChildrenFirst will provide a one-to-one ratio with their child at no extra fee.

Since every day is like the first day of school, ChildrenFirst also uses tried-and-true techniques to help kids and parents adjust to unfamiliar settings. For example, the fish tank that greets visitors as they enter the center is placed at a child\'s eye level to detract from the fact that it is unfamiliar territory.

\"For the child, the separation anxiety is very high,\" said Jill Davis King, regional manager for ChildrenFirst. \"We are trained to help them adjust. We use techniques like blowing bubbles ... or getting their parents involved in an activity with their child.\"

Davis King said staffers call children\'s parents to update them on how their child\'s day is going. They can also e-mail parents pictures of their children throughout the day.

For Aronson, knowing her children are safe and having fun helps her accomplish more at work. \"It\'s hard to concentrate if you\'re worried about your children. Knowing they are having fun makes me able to concentrate on work,\" she said. \"Otherwise, it distracts you completely. At ChildrenFirst, I felt the children were cared for physically and emotionally.\"

Preserving employees\' wits keeps companies from losing productivity and money. That\'s why companies such as RBC Dain Rauscher offer ChildrenFirst, even though the initial cost - typically $35,000 annually for about 400 employees - can seem intimidating.

\"We were able to look at what our expenses were a few years ago [before we had ChildrenFirst], and see that it is clearly saving us money,\" said Martin Solhaug, managing director of compensation and benefits for RBC Dain Rauscher.

New Horizon

New Horizon offers a corporate discount for its backup childcare, but nearly anyone can use the service.

The company also offers hour-to-hour and half-day rates. If a family needs childcare for just a few hours, the cost is $6-$8 (higher for younger kids; New Horizon accepts children from ages 6 weeks to 15 years).

New Horizon will guarantee the spot of any child who is enrolled full-time, even if he or she needs to use the center at a different time or on a temporary basis. If a child does not have a guaranteed spot, he or she may still be able to use temporary care, depending on space constraints.

New Horizon\'s Dunkley said childcare centers do not fill up as rapidly as they had a few years ago. \"Three or four years ago, childcare centers had very big space issues. Right now, childcare centers have space available in most age groups,\" Dunkley said.

New Horizon has one staffer per four infants, seven toddlers, 10 preschoolers or 15 school-agers.

Kids who come for the first time get a classroom buddy, who Dunkley describes as \"someone who knows the ropes. [The buddy] feels proud to make sure the new child is welcomed. There are some children who may have a little more separation anxiety, but our staff is trained to deal with that.\"

Parent Pam Fischer is extremely happy with the care her 18-month-old, Isabel, has received at New Horizon. Fischer only requires a few hours of childcare two to four times a week when she and her husband\'s work schedules overlap. Fischer also uses New Horizon when she has doctor or dentist appointments.

\"This is my daughter\'s first experience away from home. At first I wasn\'t sure, but she adjusted nicely,\" Fischer said. \"I was shocked to hear New Horizon allowed flexible care. I had no trouble getting in.\"