Affordable child care gives Armour edge in hiring, keeping workers

Working women

October 21, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Debra Joplin of Huntsville, Ark., would not be able to work if her employer, Armour Swift-Eckrich, hadn't opened an on-site community child-care center last June.

Joplin, 33, whose children are 9 and 6 years old, was a full-time homemaker. Her husband, Jerry, worked in oil fields in Texas, commuting back and forth to the Ozarks.

"I needed a job for the extra income, but who would take care of the children?" said Joplin, whose rural hometown of 1,400 people had only one day-care center with a long waiting list.

And not only did Joplin get a job as a deboner at $6.30 an hour, so did her husband. And her children have quality day care at the plant.

The new center, open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. to accommodate all shifts, is adjacent to Armour's newly expanded Butterball turkey processing plant. Cost is $45 a week for each child, with employees paying $25 and Armour $20. There are 150 slots for children including infants, and Armour guarantees payment for 75 of them.

The facility is an example of how a corporation can achieve its bottom-line business goal of attracting and retaining qualified employees in a small labor pool. And another plus: Armour has no financial responsibility for owning or managing the center.

The center, also open to the public, was built with funds from the Northwest Arkansas Development District, a state economic development group, and is owned and managed by Northwest Arkansas Child Care Inc., a private non-profit agency that runs highly respected Head Start programs. The community was eligible for a development loan from the federal government.

Armour Swift-Eckrich, an independent operating company of ConAgra Inc., with 9,000 employees in 30 U.S. locations, wanted to add 200 workers to its 300-worker Huntsville plant. The firm knew the best way to attract local women such as Joplin was to open

a day-care center.

The result is a one-story frame child-care center with 10,000 square feet of space. Armour donated the 3 1/2 acres it's built on and $50,000 in cash, did the landscaping and paved the parking lot.

At a time when some well-meaning corporations are finding that their child-care facilities are too expensive for their employees to use, the food-processing plant's center serves as a primer for finding out what employees need and can afford.

Child-care experts laud the Huntsville center. "What Armour has done is very creative, especially in the way they've leveraged their own dollars," said Roberta Bergman, executive vice president of the Child Care Co., a child-care consulting firm in Dallas. "What a lot of corporations fail to realize is that the ongoing cost of quality care is high and many parents cannot pay the full fees."

"It's an unusual partnership, where government and private agencies and a corporation worked together," said Stephanie D. Fanjul, president of Workplace Options Inc., a dependent-care consulting firm based in Raleigh, N.C. Fanjul was hired by the food processor to find out what the community needed and the best way to provide it.

"The company did the research, handed it over to a competent community organization and did not make the mistake of building a 'Cadillac' center when people can afford only 'Volkswagens,'" said Fanjul, who is a consultant to several other manufacturers. "Instead of saying, 'This is our dream for a boutique center,' they said, 'Our employees can pay $25 a week, go figure it out.' The result is a good, licensed, functional but inexpensive child-care center that meets every legal requirement."

The firm is committed to the center. "It's a long-term marriage," said Charles R. Romeo, director of employee benefits for Ar

mour, which is based in Downers Grove, Ill. "It was a good business decision because the plant is Neither the $7.5 million facility with jobs for the Joplins nor the center for their children would exist if Armour hadn't realized in 1989 it had a business problem to solve.

"Due to the increased demand for turkey products, our company wanted to expand where there was an existing plant," said Romeo. "To do that required more employees, but the Baby Bust already here, especially in rural areas."

Romeo says that "for-profit child-care chains wouldn't touch us, but the business decision was to expand, and I looked on the child-care center as an employee benefit we wanted to make affordable."

Joplin. "And the money I'm earning really helps. We've caught up with all our payments. With baby-sitters, sometimes they quit on you, but knowing the center is there and dependable means a lot."

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