School closings create avalanche of problems for working parents

January 08, 1991|By Abby Karpand Randi Henderson

For many working parents, winter storms follow a pattern as simple as one . . . two . . . arrggh!

First, it snows.

Next, schools close.

Finally, parents must leave work to pick up their children, either taking the rest of the day off to baby-sit or hauling them to the "Aww, Ma, there's nothing to do there" office.

Betty Kavanagh's day fit that pattern yesterday.

Leaving in the morning for her job at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, she stopped on the way to drop her daughter, April Kavanagh Ballard, at school. April goes to the Waldorf School, which follows the city school system's closing schedule.

As soon as Ms. Kavanagh got the 13-year-old girl to school, she said, "they told me they were closing. It was too late for me to take her back home. I had two meetings I had to get to. So I took her to work with me."

It was not an optimum day for mother or daughter, who once suggested that the office equip its computers with video games for such occasions. "I just left her sitting in the office," said Ms. Kavanagh, who is director of children's services. "Fortunately she had a book with her. But it was really boring for her. So I ended up leaving work at about 1:30 in the afternoon."

April's boredom aside, parents who are able to bring their children to work on snow days consider themselves lucky. Many workplaces -- such as factories or construction sites -- are not suitable for children, while others have blanket policies against children's presence.

Workers at these companies dread unexpected changes in their children's schedules, which cause parents to choose between hastily rigging up child-care arrangements, leaving the child home alone or using up sick time, vacation days or personal leave.

"Being a working parent forces you to make choices," said Hilda E. Ford, Maryland secretary of personnel. "I empathize with mothers and fathers faced with that challenge: 'Who is more important, my child or my job?' "

That choice acutely affects one out of four American workers, people with at least one child under 13 and no parent at home full time. Emergency child care is a major worry of working parents, said Arlene Johnson, program director for the Work and Family Center of the Conference Board, a New York-based business organization.

"The fear that child-care arrangements will fall through is the source of much concern to working parents," she said.

In recent years, with the labor pool shrinking and the number of working parents increasing, employers have become more interested in helping working parents with child care, said Ms. Johnson.

"Companies are very interested in the whole realm of emergency child care and sick-child care," agreed Janet Singerman, deputy director of the Maryland Committee For Children. On days that schools close, she said, "It is a primary concern of employers when all of a sudden a vast portion of their work force has to deal with children at home."

Taking a child to work might be an option for some parents, Ms. Singerman said, but she added, "I can't imagine that it would work for a parent of more than one child." She advises parents that "having back-up emergency care is really important. Try to have an arrangement with a neighbor or relative to help in these situations."

And Betty Kavanagh has some advice for school systems that she thinks would make parents' lives easier. "I wish we could get firm decisions from the schools by 7:30 in the morning," she said. "That would certainly help."

Although employers are unlikely to have programs designed to deal with snow days, some are trying on-site day care or flexible leave policies that allow parents to attend to their children on short notice.

A Boston insurance company has begun organizing field trips for children when school holidays fall on work days, said Ms. Johnson.

Baltimore city government began a family-leave policy last year that allows workers to take time off to care for relatives. The state of Maryland's liberal-leave policy, which allows time off for personal obligations, is put in effect when snow makes roads dangerous. And Baltimore County spokeswoman Carol Hirschburg said she has "no problem" with parents bringing children into the office -- "as long as they're well-behaved.

"There's a TV in my office," she said. "They wouldn't bother me."

But only a fraction of working parents get this kind of encouragement.

At Westinghouse, for example, "We don't have provisions or facilities to house children," said spokesman Jack Martin. "Parents could take a personal or sick day. Otherwise, there would be lost pay."

Giant Food spokesman Barry F. Scher said he's never heard of store employees showing up with children. "If someone has a problem [arranging emergency child-care], we'd say, 'Fine, stay home, don't worry about your job.' " They would not get paid, he added, unless they arranged for the day off to be a vacation day.

Most open-minded about the occasional invasion of juveniles are directors of educational and non-profit agencies, workers report. But even employers that don't put out the welcome mat for snowbound children, that don't provide television sets or video games, find they must yield to certain inevitabilities.

Eight years ago, Jackie O'Donahue -- then supervisor of Sinai Hospital's executive office -- showed up with her 6-year-old in tow.

"I was more productive having my daughter at work than if she was at home," said Ms. O'Donahue. "We're pretty fortunate here. She can watch the television or do her homework."

And if anyone didn't welcome young Jennifer, they didn't tell her mother.

"I think they were a little surprised," recalled Ms. O'Donahue, now assistant to the hospital's president. "I figured if they objected they'd tell me. No one said anything so I assumed it was OK."

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