Originally created 11/30/97

Hotel offers workers child care



ATLANTA - Cathy White wanted to stay off welfare, but the arithmetic of child care worked against her: Three children times $100 a week more than wiped out her $180 a week take-home pay as a housekeeper at the downtown Atlanta Hilton.

Her employer and four other hotels were battling high numbers of their own - in turnover and no-shows by housekeepers, waitresses, clerks and other hourly workers.

Their solution is Atlanta's Inn for Children, subsidized by the hotels and other donors, where Ms. White now pays just $25 a week for the care of all three children.

"If it wasn't for this center, I'd have to get back on welfare, and that's not where I want to go," Ms. White said. "I thank God every day for this day care."

The idea could spread. Marriott International Inc., which helped launch the Atlanta center, is working on a similar program in Washington and hopes to expand it to other urban areas, said Donna Klein, director of work-life programs for the hotel giant.

The center, open since July, operates from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, reflecting the irregular hours of hotel workers. Most day care centers close by 6 or 7 p.m. and often are not open on Saturdays.

The center is in a salmon-colored brick building framed by two playgrounds a few blocks from Atlanta's downtown hotel district. It has 10 classrooms where children eat, play and sleep. The rooms are filled with brightly colored artwork, miniature purple chairs, kid-level sinks and windows where parents coming and going can watch their children.

The building bustles during the day, when there are 150 children and 28 day care workers. By 10 p.m., numbers dwindle to 15 children, most asleep, and three staff members. The total enrollment is 175 children.

The project began when Rosemary Strong, human resources manager at the Marriott Midtown Suites, suggested her hotel start a day care center, in part because of a housekeeper who continually missed work.

"Here was a person who could have very well lost her job after giving about seven years to the company because she was committed to not leaving her children alone," Ms. Strong said.

Marriott could not afford to provide free child care or reduced rates on its own, Ms. Klein said, but sought outside help. Marriott approached other hotels and formed a nonprofit organization. The facility also was opened to non-hotel employees to make it easier to raise money.

About 50 percent of Marriott employees are women with an average salary of $17,000 a year. Forty percent have children younger than 10.

"Eighty percent of the women in this country make less than $25,000 a year," Ms. Klein said. "This is rapidly becoming a service economy. And as it becomes a service economy, the need to look at the work force ... becomes increasingly important."

Robin Hardman, a spokeswoman for the Families & Work Institute in New York, said the expense of child care forces many women to put together patchwork arrangements, calling on neighbors and relatives.

"The challenge of child care is not going to go away. I expect that more and more employers will see that it's to their advantage to help their employees out with this," Ms. Hardman said.

In addition to child care, Atlanta's Inn for Children provides immunizations, tutorials on home-buying for adults and English classes for children and adults. Ms. Klein said low-income workers need assistance in many areas "to stabilize the family."

She expects the center to serve 1,000 families a year.

Phyllis McLaughlin, who works the night shift for less than $15,000 a year at a downtown business, pays $30 a week for her 19-month-old daughter's care, compared with the center's standard rate of about $130 a week.

"She sat down like she was at home and read a book, and she didn't want to leave. So that made me feel real good and real comfortable about leaving her there at night with strangers," Ms. McLaughlin said.