Children in the office: For some, it's workable

January 03, 1994|By Kathy Boccella | Kathy Boccella,Knight-Ridder News Service

Office manager Sue Pratt is talking to a deliveryman with a baby wrapped around her hip and a toddler clutching her leg.

Three-year-old Breanne lets go of her leg and wanders into another room. A few seconds later, she is howling, and Ms. Pratt darts into the room to see what is wrong.

"No, Samantha. You come sit with your mommy. That wasn't very nice. That was mean," she says as she yanks Samantha, 2 1/2 , who has bopped Breanne on the head, through the office to her mother. Now Samantha is sobbing, which wakes up 7-week-old Sarah, who was sleeping in a carriage.

Breanne hops on her tricycle and aims straight for 14-month-old Travis' leg when Ms. Pratt runs over and pulls Travis to safety just in time.

Welcome to a typical day at the Natural Baby Co., a mail-order business that allows -- encourages, actually -- employees to bring their children to work. There's no day-care center or baby sitter here -- just children wobbling through the West Trenton, N.J., office and warehouse, toys strewn across the floor like land mines, high-pitched, boisterous voices, like Muzak run amok, blathering in the background.

"We're pretty weird," says owner Jane Martin, who is breast-feeding a baby while fielding calls about the company's Earth-friendly products, which include lambskin diaper covers, futon cribs, organic cotton rompers and homeopathic teething tablets.

With more workers gingerly balancing family and job responsibilities, companies are acting like kindly uncles, offering to take the children for the day now and then -- as long as it doesn't interfere with business. Some firms arrange field trips for employees' children on school holidays, while a few grudgingly permit children to tag along at the office in emergencies.

"It depends on two informal variables: who's the company, and what is your position in the company," says Renee Y. Magid, president of Initiatives Inc., a center for work-family issues in Horsham, Pa. "If you have a position with some clout, you probably could find it easier to work out some arrangement that is temporary. But most of the people that we talk with, when absolutely in a desperate bind, will in fact stay at home or call in sick."

At Automatic Data Processing in Essex County, N.J., a mother who couldn't find child care slogged to the office with her newborn for a few weeks. She set up a playpen next to her desk and worked "pretty effectively," says Sharon Murphy, senior director of corporate employee relations, adding that the company in Roseland "really needed her back."

The Natural Baby Co., which has 30 employees and does $2 million in annual sales, outshines others when it comes to being kid-friendly. Jane Martin, an eco-minded former computer analyst, gave birth to the company in her apartment 10 years ago, after her son David was born. As it grew, she hired other mothers, who brought their children along. When they moved into an office six years ago, the children moved, too.

"I started the business to work with my kids. I couldn't ask somebody else to leave their kids home," says Ms. Martin, 35.

The pay is low, the benefits are skimpy and the noise level is, at times, deafening. But there are perks. Work schedules are set up around children's schedules. If a child is sick, the parent -- OK, mother; there are no fathers except for Jane's husband, Dan -- stays home.

The office, too, is arranged with children in mind. In a corner of the warehouse is a play area with a television -- "we finally broke down and bought an electronic baby sitter," Ms. Martin says with a sigh -- beanbag chairs, a play kitchen and child-size table and chairs. The mothers, most of whom take orders over the phone, can peek into the play area through two windows.

But the children are all over the place, chasing each other, yanking on telephone cords or spinning on chairs. Working here distinguishes the women from the girls. Anyone who can handle the phones while giving sips of juice, changing diapers or refereeing fights can do anything.

"Some people can't do more than one thing at a time. I can do 10," says Chris Naylor, charging briskly through the office with year-old Jessica latched to her hip.

Talk about having it all. Ms. Pratt hauls two kids, a diaper bag, a cooler and a briefcase to the office every day.

"Sometimes I wish I could have a job where I could go to work and come home and say, 'Oh, hi.' Having to watch kids is one job, and working is another. So I feel like I'm doing two jobs, and then I come home and clean the house," she says.

But most of the parents say they "like" spending 24 hours a day with their children. They don't have to pay a baby sitter or worry about what their children are doing while they're at work.

"I have my daughter with me," says Samantha's mother, Donna Sandfort, who gave up a $47,000-a-year computer-programming job and now makes $6.25 an hour. "I don't think there's a price tag you can put on that."

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