WASHINGTON – When Dr. Bonnie Richter drives to work at the Department of Energy in Germantown every morning, her two young children are always in tow.
While the epidemiologist studies the risk factors of disease and works to prevent them, her 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son are across a walkway, finger painting and listening to stories at the Energy Child Development Center.
Richter and her husband, an engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are one of 6,000 families who take their children to 98 day-care centers in federal buildings around the country, according to the General Services Administration, which operates federal buildings.
There are 23 centers in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.
“We are opening them as fast as we can,” said Faith Wohl, director of the Office of Workplace Initiatives, which oversees GSA’s nationwide child care programs. “There are waiting lists everywhere.”
Wohl said there were seven day-care centers in federal buildings in 1985. Since then, an average of 10 centers have opened a year, Wohl said.
Nine new centers are expected this year, she said.
“There may never be enough centers to accommodate the need,” Wohl said. “We are trying to quickly and efficiently respond to the expressed needs of agencies and their employees.”
One recent concern has been security, after the recent bombing of a federal building and its day-care center in Oklahoma. Wohl said a uniformed guard presence has been stepped up at many buildings around the country.
The day-care centers are part of the federal government’s plan to make the workforce more family-friendly, said Michael Orenstein, spokesman for the federal Office of Personnel Management.
“We encourage agencies, at the behest of the Clinton administration, to make work and family life more cohesive,” Orenstein said.
George King, spokesman for the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers nationwide, said family-friendly initiatives make sense.
“It doesn’t work when employers want you to be a part of their family and have you ignore your own,” King said. “Great progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go.”
Which family programs a business or government agency implements depend on the employees’ duties and how creative management is, said Janet Singerman, deputy director for the Maryland Committee for Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group.
“The key to success is accurately accessing the needs of the employees,” Singerman said. “There are a wide array of available options.”
Half of all open slots at GSA centers are given to children of federal workers and the others are offered to private-sector employees, Wohl said.
GSA provides space within federal buildings or in adjacent buildings on federal property and equipment free of charge to private operators, who then collect monthly tuition for each child enrolled at the center.
Wohl said the government’s programs are first-rate. Only 5 percent of all child care centers in the nation are accredited, while 50 percent of GSA centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she said.
She expects all of the centers to be accredited by 1997, she said.
But quality doesn’t always come cheap.
Tuition costs at the federal centers vary, but, according to the GSA, the Energy Department’s child care center charges monthly tuition of $737 for infants and $563 for 5-year-olds.
The average monthly cost for private-sector, center-based care in Maryland is $563 for infants and $345 for 5-year-olds, according to the Maryland Committee for Children.
Richter said the biggest advantage for on-site day care is its convenience.
“My options are to work or not to work,” she said. “I prefer to work and have my children where I am.”