Whereas childcare benefits are offered by larger corporations to attract and retain employees, smaller businesses usually cannot afford the same expense. And right now, adds Lisa Forrester, owner and executive director of Harmony Schools, businesses probably do not need to offer this kind of benefit to hire people with good experience and education because they are deluged with resumes.

But whatever the economic climate, Forrester says that childcare benefits may still have a role. “If you have young families in your workforce and want people to come to work with regularity and peace of mind,” she says, “you have to ask what you can do that doesn’t cost your company a lot of money.”

Forrester will speak on “Creative Solutions for Providing Child Care Benefits for Your Small Business,” on Thursday, June 4, at 8 a.m. at Roma Bank headquarters at 2300 Route 33 in Robbinsville. The free breakfast event is sponsored by the Robbinsville chapter of the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce. For information, call 609-689-9960.

Forrester offers a few ideas about how businesses can support employees who need childcare:

Negotiate a quantity discount. Forrester worked with Novo Nordisk five years ago to hammer out a quantity discount. In this arrangement parents are able to pay slightly below market rate, and the company is relieved of the responsibility of operating childcare on site.

Offer employees a list of area resources. When a new employee joins a large company, a relocation specialist will often supply detailed information about the community, but even smaller businesses can supply their employees with written information. “If they just had a list of resources in the area, childcare among them, that would be considered by a potential employee as very thoughtful,” says Forrester.

The West Windsor-Plainsboro School District invited area childcare agencies to provide information about special programs and discounts they could offer to its approximately 170 teachers and staff who would need childcare in 2009. Using this information, the district will create a list with detailed information about programs, hours, schedule, and discounts.

Offer a dependent care assistance program. This plan allows an employer to provide an employee with up to $5,000 each year in child and dependent care benefits, tax free. In addition to the employee being able to pay for childcare with pretax dollars, the employer does not pay unemployment or payroll taxes on the amount of benefit provided. If a taxpayer receives child and dependent care benefits through a DCAP, the amount of the benefits must be subtracted from the child and dependent care expenses used to calculate the child and dependent care federal tax credit. And offer onsite workshops about how employees can take full advantage of childcare tax credits.

Forrester comes from an entrepreneurial family. Born in Trenton, she spent her formative years in Hamilton Township. Her mother was secretary in the court system and her father a car salesman. Her brother, John Tomasulo, owns four Taco Bells in Mercer County.

Forrester graduated from the College of New Jersey with a bachelor’s in music education and a certification in early childhood education. She taught music in elementary and middle school for seven years and also has a master’s degree in child care administration.

The idea to start the first Harmony School came to Forrester as she and her husband were trying to figure out what they would do if they had children and how they would buy a house. “There was not much in the way of infant care, and both our moms were still working women,” she says. “We looked at each other, and said, if we get the right experience under our belts and do our homework, maybe there is something we can do.”

Twenty-eight years ago Forrester started the first center, which she sold four years ago, in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, figuring that would be the entire extent of the business.

But instead their business expanded, and now they have two schools, one at Princeton Forrestal Village and the other in Robbinsville.

Forrester’s husband is not involved in Harmony Schools, but he does work with children as a superior court judge, specializing in family and juvenile matters. “He is a kid person as well, but at a different end of the spectrum,” says Forrester.

Her three children, all Harmony School graduates, are flourishing. One is a public defender and two are in hospitality. Her 21-year-old son Randy, who just graduated from Boston University, is working in the kitchen at the Harvest Moon Inn in Ringoes. He was selected to be part of a Mrs. G’s fundraiser on June 25 to benefit the United Way; he will be the only amateur chef competing with three professionals — from Salt Creek Grill, Rats, and the Yardley Inn in a celebrity chef cookoff.

When businesses are trying to negotiate a discount for employee childcare, Forrester advises them to realize that a negotiation is a two-way street. When people call her asking for a discount, she wants them to understand that her business is highly regulated and that maintaining a great facility with the best employees is costly.

“People still maybe think we’re professional babysitters,” she says. So when she gets a call from a stranger asking for a deal, she may ask, “What about the rest of my clients? Why should I give you a discount — I don’t even know you yet.”

What she will suggest instead of an immediate discount is that the caller round up a minimum number of users and then get back to her.

“You have to do something too — bring your friends.” she says.

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