Many companies allow workers to slip away for school plays or stay home with a sick child. But Corporate America has far to go before it can be called truly family-friendly.

One of the first comprehensive studies of the availability of work-family programs reported Tuesday that many companies lack even basic work-family policies, don't make a real effort to inform workers that help is available, or fail to hold managers accountable for sensitivity to work-family needs.The study also found that big companies and those with women and minority leaders were far more likely to offer such support.

The "Business Work-Life Study," by the Families and Work Institute, draws attention to important gaps between the widespread corporate rhetoric given to work-family concerns and the actual help offered to workers.

It complements the Institute's recent landmark survey of the American work force, which said that workers with more supportive employers and better jobs were more likely to be loyal to their companies - an important finding amid the current labor shortage.

"It's a mixed picture," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based institute, a private research group. "There's certainly a lot going on, and certainly a great deal of room for improvement. Companies are much more likely to offer the no-cost or low-cost options."

She released the report to business leaders brought together for the day to discuss the importance of early childhood development. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and child advocate and director Rob Reiner were to attend the forum, which was closed to the press.

Only a few years after the term "work-family" became recognizable to most Americans, many companies offer at least some initiatives to help employees balance their lives:

- Nearly 90 percent of the 1,000 companies surveyed by telephone allow workers to take time off to attend school events, and half let workers stay home with mildly ill children without using vacations or sick days.

- More than two-thirds of employers allow flextime, such as authorizing employees to change starting and quitting times on a daily basis, according to the study, which focused on companies that employ 100 workers or more.

Yet only 9 percent of companies offer child care at or near the workplace, 33 percent offer maternity leaves more than 13 weeks long, and 23 percent offer elder care resource and referral services.

Of course, just having a program available to workers doesn't always translate into a family-friendly environment. Managers and top executives must be supportive and employees must know about the programs to make use of them. While the report mostly measured availability of programs, in some areas it delved into such deeper concerns.

Only 44 percent of companies, for example, hold supervisors accountable for sensitivity to their employees' work-family needs.

The survey results had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.