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By Pamela Mendels After a homegrown American terrorist blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, federal officials debated whether government office buildings were appropriate spots for child-care centers. The reason was clear: Nineteen young children enrolled in a preschool in the building were among the 168 victims of the attack.
Following the bombing, some suggested that centers located in federal workplaces should be housed in underground bunkers, says Faith Wohl, then-director of the General Services Administration, which oversees federal-employee child care. Others favored banishing child-care centers from federal office buildings altogether.
NO POLICY CHANGE. In the end, however, that debate lapsed and the federal government continued to provide convenient child care to its workforce. The number of federally sponsored child-care centers has grown from about 100 to 120 in recent years, according to Wohl.
Why no change in policy? More than mere inertia, it had everything to do with the realization that, in a world of dual-income couples and single moms and dads, many parents -- including federal workers -- simply could not work unless quality child-care centers were located close to their offices. "The need is profound," says Wohl, now executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, a New York City-based advocacy group. "The federal government, both on the civilian and military side, recognizes that the workforce has changed."
I spoke with Wohl and others last week in an attempt to get some post-September 11 perspective on the fate of on-site child care -- especially because a number of centers were located near the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Now that the country has witnessed a wave of workplace terrorist attacks even more horrifying than the blast that destroyed the Murrah building, I wondered if history would repeat itself. Will it be business as usual at on-site child-care centers, or is the industry about to suffer a significant setback?
MORE OF THE SAME. So far, while it is too early to tell, operators of employer-sponsored child-care centers report that business seems pretty normal -- with two specific exceptions: centers located in New York City and Washington, D.C., business districts. Elanna Yallow, president and chief operating officer of Knowledge Learning Corp., which runs 360 centers, about 90 of them employer-sponsored, reports slight declines in attendance at two of her centers, one of them in a government building in the nation's capital. (Another of Yallow's centers, in Building 5 of the World Trade Center, was destroyed in the attacks, but all the children were evacuated safely and reunited with their parents.)
Roger Brown is chief executive officer of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which operates 384 child-care centers in North America and Europe, most of them on behalf of employers. According to Brown, while enrollment at his centers is actually up a bit, a number of parents thinking of enrolling their children cancelled appointments to tour the centers after the September 11 massacres.
Three of Diane Lipton-Dennis' backup child-care centers -- sponsored by employers for use by workers when their regular child-care arrangements falter -- have seen a noticeable drop in attendance. Lipton-Dennis, founder and CEO of Lipton Corporate Child Care, says they are the ones serving midtown and downtown New York City, including one about four blocks from the World Trade Center site.
FAITH IN THE FUTURE. Interestingly, Lipton-Dennis says, attendance is higher than usual at her center in White Plains, a commuter suburb of New York. Working parents are giving her two main reasons for keeping their children out of Manhattan. The first is a general sense of unease about the city's safety. The second is a wariness about taking children on the public transportation systems that bring commuters from places like White Plains into town. "This is going to take a lot of healing," says Lipton-Dennis, who adds: "The trauma of that morning was so overwhelming."
Despite the attendance decline, Lipton-Dennis has no plans to close any of her centers, nor have any employers indicated that they might consider dropping their sponsorships. Catherine Saka, work/life consultant at Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm, also says she has not heard of any clients having second thoughts about hosting child-care centers. Meanwhile, Yallow is scouting for a new location to replace the World Trade Center facility destroyed on September 11.
Among child-care operators, at least, the belief is strong that life will get back to normal -- and that means working parents will still need convenient care for their little ones. Pamela Mendels is based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for BusinessWeek, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.