Bonnie Naylor had to get to work to close the end-of-the-month accounts at ConAgra Inc. Her husband had important meetings all day. It was the worst time for their 4-year-old to come down with the flu.
So Naylor placed a call, and a baby sitter for little Nathan arrived promptly, lined up through Naylor’s employer.
“He couldn’t go to day care, he wasn’t sick enough to go to the doctor and we needed to get to work,” Naylor, an account coordinator at ConAgra, recalled.
Naylor turned to Rest Easy, an emergency child-care and elder-care program created and funded by five major Omaha employers - ConAgra, Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha, Commercial Federal Bank and First Bank - for their 12,000 employees. As many as 2 percent of them are expected to use the service, which began this summer.
The program, one of several similar plans around the country, is operated by the Visiting Nurses Association and sends a trained sitter to the employee’s home to take care of a sick child or elderly parent for up to 12 hours.
Paul Graven, vice president of human relations for ConAgra’s frozen foods division, said the company expects to spend about $10,000 on the program. But he believes the costs will be balanced by increased productivity.
“It’s good from an employee relations standpoint … and companies can benefit from an efficiency standpoint as well,” he said. “This way employees are available during critical periods of time and they are not delayed as a result of day-care and elder-care issues.”
It costs $10.50 to $14 an hour for an aide to come to an employee’s home, and each company picks up a different share of the cost. ConAgra and Mutual, for example, reimburse employees for 75 percent of the cost.
Many day-care centers won’t accept a child who is running a fever. That was Naylor’s problem. In some places around the country, there are emergency day-care centers where a working parent can bring a sick child.
“But dressing a sick child and taking them outside? Why make a bad situation worse?” said Susan Ogborn, manager of education initiatives for the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
The Omaha program is for mildly ill children and adults with temperatures below 102 degrees. Each company puts a limit on the number of hours an employee can use the program - from 12 to 24 hours annually.
Health-care aides will arrive at an employee’s home within two hours, including nights and weekends. The aides are not registered nurses but are trained in first aid and undergo a criminal background check.
Twenty companies in the Brookline, Mass., area sponsor a similar program, called Parents in a Pinch, and the city of Phoenix offers Arizona Child Care Resources.
“We’ve had the program since 1991, and I can’t say enough good things about it,” said Debbie Campbell, a research analyst for the city of Phoenix. She said the city’s 11,600 employees pay $1 an hour to use the service.
Some worry that such programs could put pressure on parents to come to work when they truly are needed at home.
“In general, this really does help parents when their children are sick,” said Abby Farber, a research associate at the Families and Work Institute in New York City. “But sometimes a parent needs to be with the child and there needs to be the flexibility in the workplace for them to be at home.”
In Omaha, the participating companies stress that the service is intended only as a backup when children are mildly ill or other care plans fall through.
“This is not a day-care program,” Ogborn said. “If your child or your parent is very sick, these companies do not want their employees at work, worrying.”
Parents are expected to leave a detailed care plan and will be called immediately if the situation worsens, as it did in Nathan Naylor’s case.
The boy’s slight fever climbed to about 104 degrees during the day. The baby sitter, who was taking his temperature every half-hour, called Naylor at work and gave the child a cool bath.
Naylor immediately returned home. She was extremely pleased with the baby sitter’s six hours with Nathan.
“I am not an advocate of leaving your child with others if they’re sick,” Naylor said. “But if life dictates that you have to be at work, certainly it’s a viable option.”
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