On-site daycare ‘out of sight’

Flex time, job sharing and longer maternity leaves more likely benefits

Two years ago, L’Oréal Canada in Montreal decided to introduce an autistic child into its on-site daycare program. The young boy integrated very well, enjoying the attention of specialists who followed his progress closely, and now another autistic child has been brought in.

The daycare is very convenient for parents, says Marie-Hélène Azar, corporate communications leader at L’Oréal, and is a great service for employees, giving them greater flexibility and precious time with their children, if possible, during breaks.

It’s a heartening story demonstrating the value and dedication that can be found in a workplace daycare. It’s also a rarity. While on-site daycares have long been touted as a solution to the child-care crisis, they are still few and far between. A mere six per cent of employers offer on-site daycare, according to a May 2007 survey by online job board Workopolis, and among Canada’s Top 100 Employers, “on-site daycare remains somewhat of a rare benefit and largely found within larger organizations,” says Richard Yerema, editor of the annual list published annually by Toronto-based MediaCorp Canada Inc.

In 2000, there were only 338 work-related child-care centres, 70 per cent of which were on-site, according to the report Work-Related Child-Care Centres in Canada – 2001 by Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC).

This option “has remained an extremely minor part of the supply of regulated child care,” according to the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, and without greater support from the government, there is little incentive for employers to get involved, says Jody Dallaire, the association’s Fredericton-based chairperson.

But with a looming labour shortage and ever more women entering the workforce, will the scale nudge upwards as more employers offer daycare to attract and retain employees?

The demand is certainly there: 65 per cent of all women in Canada with children under the age of three are employed and, after flexible working hours (32 per cent), on-site daycare is cited as the most preferred option (13 per cent) to help balance hectic schedules, according to the Workopolis study.

But this desire may be driven by the fact it’s hard to find daycare anywhere, says Andrea Garson, vice-president of HR at Workopolis in Toronto. Setting up and running a workplace daycare is no easy task — it requires space in a building, possible renovations, qualified staff, maintenance and rent and operational support. Plus it must meet plenty of rules and regulations. There is also the debate over productivity, and whether on-site daycares help or hinder nearby parents, says Garson.

“If I think about the organizations where I’ve worked in the past, it’s certainly not economically feasible to be able to offer on-site daycare. There are less children per family relative to 20 years ago so there is probably not as strong a need. With the demographics of the workplace, sometimes there just isn’t the number of children to potentially satisfy demand and the cost to be able to do that on-site. There are a lot of regulations, licenses and legal and insurance requirements needed and a lot of organizations don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Instead, employers are offering flex time, part-time work, job sharing and working from home as options, she says. Back-up services for employees, when primary or regular child care is unavailable, are also becoming more popular.

“I’m not sure child care is on the radar of employers. I think the work-life balance is the huge piece that is on the radar now. Unless your employee base is made up of the right demographic, you might only have six kids available. Can an employer make that all come together for that number of kids? I think you do see it a lot more in the really large organizations, the 4,000 plus, huge companies, where it does make a lot more sense.”

These sentiments are backed by HRSDC which found, in consultations in the summer of 2006, “generally employers do not want to be child care providers.” A paper from the ministerial advisory committee on the government of Canada’s “Child Care Spaces Initiative” found the majority of business leaders feel the availability of quality child care is an important factor in hiring and retaining people and competing globally but they “are concerned about getting directly involved in building, operating or directly providing child care and would rather work with existing child care providers.”

The University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto did just that about five years ago when it decided to offer child care to its employees through an arrangement with a nearby facility. The organization has priority enrolment for about 48 spaces there.

“Certainly the lifestyle of a lot of our staff here requires that so it was one of our work-life balance (initiatives) and certainly made life easier for our staff,” says Joy Polevoy, HR manager at UHN.

The daycare has extended its hours to accommodate people working 12-hour shifts and offers back-up care if needed. While there are no formal discounts, the rates are lower than a regular daycare and this benefit definitely helps attract and retain employees, she says. So if the demand is there, why does the UHN not offer its own on-site version?

“We’re not in the business of daycare,” says Polevoy. “We do a lot of good things here, daycare not being one of our core competencies. We do a lot of contracting out, so it’s kind of the way the UHN runs its business. But the main objective is, ‘What do we want for our employees? To get them priority placement of kids in a really good location.’”

For L’Oreal, the on-site daycare is a great success, providing 36 highly valued spaces to its 1,200 employees. Located in a quiet area right near a beautiful park, it accommodates the needs of working families, makes them feel more secure and improves productivity, says Mary Patsatzis, director of the daycare. And while there have been challenges, in accommodating the different locations and work hours of employees, “it provided an opportunity for L’Oreal to offer something that many other companies don’t offer,” says Aleksandra Szymaowiak, HR manager at L’Oreal, so it’s “absolutely” an attraction and retention tool.

Sarah Dobson is editor of Canadian Compensation & Benefits Reporter, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at total rewards. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com/ccbr.

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