Want the best employees for your company? Think about child care. It is becoming an urgent business issue, especially as the number of working mothers increases.

Many employers are finding child care offered through the workplace creates immediate benefits, including a boost in employee morale and less turnover and absenteeism."The most profound change in the labor force has been the presence of mothers in the workplace," said Sandra Porter, director of programs for the National Commission on Working Women. "The issue isn't going away; 57 percent of mothers with children under the age of 3 work."

Obviously, a mother's commitment to continue working creates personal and professional hardships.

"Children need daily care, even after they start school," said Joan Arden, a journalist and mother of five. "Working mothers are concerned about their children's development, but they are trying to fulfill too many roles. The majority of mothers still work out of economic necessity."

In a recent government publication, Secretary of Labor Ann Dore McLaughlin, a proponent of expanded day care, said,"Within 10 years, women will account for two-thirds of new additions to the work force, and 80 percent will start families."

However, employer action to allieviate child care hardships is still a rarity. In 1985, the National Commission on Working Women estimated that out of 6 million U.S. businesses only 2,500 gave support to employee child-care needs.

Earlier this year, a survey by the American Society of Personnel Administration (ASPA) reported only 10 percent of the companies were providing child care. Three-quarters of the respondents that did not provide child care assistance said they were afraid of added expenses and liability.

Although child-care assistance is most common in companies with 500 employees or more, small firms can get involved.

The easiest way to help is to provide information on available area services.

Catherine Wolfe, director of resource and referral for the Day Care Action Council of Illinois, explained that her organization has contracts with 18 national corporations, such as IBM, Xerox and Kraft, to provide child care assistance to employees.

"The council's primary service is an enhanced resource referral program," said Wolfe. "We counsel parents on choosing care and offer service referrals. We also sponsor seminars for companies wishing to provide day care."

Some employers provide financial assistance. One form entails the use of vouchers for employees to use at designated child care centers.

Baxter International, a manufacturer of health care products and systems in Deerfield, Ill., allows employees to apply pre-tax dollars for use at a qualified day-care center.

Even with the increased focus on the child-care issue, a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey issued in January found that only 2 percent of the nation's employers provided on-site day care.

Fel-Pro Inc., a gasket manufacturer in Skokie, Ill., has been providing on-site day care to its employees for the past five years.

"Currently, we have 45 children, from ages 2 to 6," said Scott Mies, director of Fel-Pro's day care program. "A trained staff provides both educational and custodial care. Employees only pay a portion of the cost, with the company making up the difference."

Family leaves-of-absence presents another employer option. Two-thirds of the companies in the ASPA survey provided for pregnancy disability leave. Paid maternity leave was offered by 10 percent of the companies, while 44 percent offered unpaid maternity leave. Only 3 percent of the companies offered paid paternity leave; 19 percent offered unpaid leave for dads.

Currently Congress is reviewing several child care/workplace bills. The most controversial, the Family and Medical Leave Act, would require businesses to grant unpaid leaves to parents to care for a newborn or a sick child, to maintain regular benefits during the leave, and to allow the parent to return to the same or similar job after the leave is over.

Child day care will be a major issue in the upcoming presidential race. George Bush already has proposed a program of subsidies or tax credits for all families with children under 4 in which at least one parent worked. While Michael Dukakis has not issued a specific plan, a counter-response to Bush's proposal is expected. Dukakis has asserted his commitment to social and economic issues such as day care.

Reader questions will be answered and may appear in this column, when mailed to Gary S. Meyers at 20 West Hubbard St., Chicago, IL 60610.