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Day care begins early for LaDonna Kaudeyr's family.

To get to her job at American Axle & Manufacturing by 6:30 a.m., she often drops her two youngest children off before the sun is up.

Not a problem at the Just for Kids Early Childhood Center. The center in the Town of Tonawanda opens at 5:30 a.m. and remains open until 2 a.m. to accommodate early- and late-shift workers at area companies.

"Most places don't open until 7 a.m.," Kaudeyr said. In addition, "the facility is located right by our jobs, so it's easy to to drop off in the morning or to come by at lunch."

The hours of operation aren't the only thing different about Just for Kids. The center is run by a consortium of area companies and labor unions that designs programs to accommodate the 'round-the-clock schedules of manufacturing workers. The experiment in tailoring subsidized programs for workers' needs and splitting the costs among several companies is drawing attention for possible duplication in other areas, as employers seek to reduce the burdens on their stressed-out workers.

Started in 1995, the Western New York Family Care Consortium includes four United Auto Workers units and eight employers, including GM's Tonawanda Engine Plant and American Axle & Manufacturing Inc.'s Tonawanda Forge. The consortium members subsidize about 20 percent of the cost of programs, amounting to more than $250,000 a year, officials said.

With flexible child care, workers "don't have to miss work, or chose between work and family," said Leslie Halliburton, a labor representative from the UAW-GM human resources center in Royal Oak, Mich.

The Early Childhood Center held a reception Tuesday to mark its takeover by the consortium this summer. Previously called the Courtyard Child Development Center, a not-for-profit that offered consortium-designed programs, the site at 1885 Military Rd. in Tonawanda is now overseen directly by the employer consortium and run by a contract manager.

Taking charge of the center marks an expansion of the consortium's role in providing child care for up to 17,000 workers in Western New York, said Angie Kleeh, president of Childcare Network in Amherst, the contract manager of consortium programs.

The consortium is raising wages for center workers by 10 percent in the first year to reduce turnover and improve care, she said.

"It's a model that the UAW and GM are looking at for other locations," Kleeh said.

Halliburton said the Tonawanda center is the only one that GM is participating in, although another is preparing to open in Wisconsin.

"If you have to work overtime, you have assurance there will be someone there to look to look after your children," she said. "If you have to work a 12-hour shift and your day care ends at eight hours, your mind-set is 'What's going to happen those four hours.' "

In addition to the Just for Kids center, the consortium offers programs through other daycare centers throughout the region, acting as a kind of buyers' club. For example, the "Just in Case" program provides emergency child care as needed at one of some 250 licensed providers, Kleeh said. Her company acts as a reservation agent, hopping on the phone to find a center with an open slot that can accommodate an extra child.

"One of the greatest advantages for the work force is the flexibility in scheduling it offers," she said.

Because they must meet minimum staffing requirements, most care providers won't take children on short notice.

For LaDonna Kaudeyr, the subsidized cost is another plus. The weekly bill for her two daughters is $200, about $100 less than private accredited day care, she said. And since her husband, Bashir, also begins work early, the family has plenty of time to spend together when they're reunited in the afternoon.

"We're very oriented toward being together as a family," Kaudeyr said.

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