Club owners never want to hear their club's name and “illegal” in the same sentence on the local TV news, let alone be the subject of an investigative segment looking into child care practices at their facility.

But that's what happened to Prairie Life Fitness, Omaha, NE, and Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, last fall when a Kansas City, MO, TV station ran a four-minute piece about how both fitness chains were running illegal child care services in their locations in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, KS.

The news report cited an incident at Life Time Fitness where a 4-year-old walked out of the club's child care area and was inappropriately talked to by an older child in the restroom, causing an investigation by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). However, KDHE says the real reason for the investigation was that club employees were using each club's child care service for their own children, which in Kansas means the facility must have a day care license. That's something neither club had, says Rachel Berroth, regional administrator for the Kansas City metro area of KDHE.

KDHE has worked with both facilities to resolve the situation. As of July 1, Prairie Life's group exercise instructors and other employees not working in the child care area can no longer use the babysitting service while they work, and Life Time Fitness recently resubmitted its program to KDHE and was found to not need a license, Berroth says.

Negative publicity regarding child care isn't unusual, says Casey Conrad, owner of Communications Consultants and president of Healthy Inspirations, a women-only club franchise headquartered in Wakefield, RI.

“This is a great example of how clubs can be at the mercy of the press, and what happened is not uncommon — i.e. they cover the news story from one angle and then when other truths are discovered, it no longer has the same sexiness or news appeal, and it never gets re-covered,” she says.

Running a child care facility within a fitness facility isn't always easy. No group keeps data on how many accidents occur specifically in fitness facilities' babysitting areas or how often clubs are investigated by a state's child care licensing agency. However, when it happens, clubs can face harsh criticism from parents and the media.

Keeping a child care area staffed can be difficult because staff turnover is high. State child care regulations also can change frequently, making it difficult to keep up with new guidelines.

It's no wonder fewer fitness facilities are offering babysitting. In 2001, 70 percent of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) member clubs offered babysitting services. In 2003, that number dropped to 67 percent. Last year, 60 percent of IHRSA clubs offered the service.

Ken Reinig, president of Association Insurance Group, has noticed the trend and isn't surprised. Child care can be a negative profit center, he says.

“Square footage is getting more and more expensive,” he says. “Child-sitting areas take up valuable space, and unless the club is charging additional fees for this service, they are losing money on child care, period.”

At the Lawrence Family JCC Jacobs Family Campus in La Jolla, CA, babysitting is a money-loser and a constant battle, says Dan Wagner, assistant director of sports and fitness at the JCC. The babysitting area is busy some days but not busy on other days. The JCC fitness staff has considered converting the babysitting room into a personal training studio, but so far, they are keeping the room open as a form of community service.

“We have very specific hours and really toyed around with getting it set to break even,” Wagner says. “Every time we talk about changing or shortening the hours, then we have three or four families who consistently cause a big stink about it, and the staff backs down and keeps it the way it is.”

State Regulations

Each state's child care licensing department dictates how and if a fitness facility's babysitting room and program needs to be licensed or regulated. Most states exempt drop-in or short-term care, as long as parents are on the premises and care is limited to two hours or less. Other states classify health clubs' child-watch areas as babysitting and, therefore, do not require a license.

However, state regulations can vary widely from state to state, and many states look at facilities on a case-by-case basis, says Tracy Myers, information specialist for the National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center.

“The licensing agencies in the states are the best sources of information about requirements the programs must meet,” Myers says. “There may be other ways they are exempt — number of hours of care, number of children, etc. Only the licensing agency can make those judgments.”

This is especially important because a club and the state licensing department can sometimes interpret regulations differently, says Jennifer Mahlendorf, director of marketing and sales at Prairie Life, which has locations in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Tennessee. For example, when Prairie Life management read in the KDHE's policy that a child had to be “within reach” of their parent who is an employee, they thought group ex instructors and club managers would be included. However, after working with KDHE, management learned that only its child care staff members can have their children in the babysitting program because group ex instructors and club managers would be harder to reach if their child had an accident, Mahlendorf says.

“It isn't so much that we run into problems with the regulations themselves. It's the interpretation of them,” says Mahlendorf, noting that Prairie Life staff has interrupted a group ex class so that the instructor could tend to her child. “When an incident occurs, that raises questions. It's all in how the state enforces them.”

Hockessin Athletic Club in Hockessin, DE, offers both a licensed child care program and non-licensed babysitting services for members. Like many states, Delaware requires facilities that provide child care to be licensed only if parents leave the site while their children are in child care. Members are allowed up to two hours a day of babysitting for children ages 6 weeks to 13 years. The babysitting area is divided into three areas: infant, preschool and school age. The babysitting area is open 72 hours a week and averages 900 check-ins each week, says Marie Cantrell, youth programs director at Hockessin Athletic Club.

“If there are times when staff can't console a child, usually emotionally, we'll page [the member],” she says. “It's usually just about familiarity with a child — have they been here, have they seen our faces before? If it's a newborn, we'll page them right away.”

Hockessin Athletic Club follows many of the state's licensing regulations in the babysitting area, and many of the licensed child care staff members work in the babysitting room as well, Cantrell says.

“We have a child to staff ratio of 4:1 with infants, 7:1 in toddlers to preschool and 10:1 in school age children,” she says. “Those numbers are mandated by the state for licensed child care, but we have the same expectations in babysitting. There's a reason why they make that requirement.”

Staffing Woes

Child care areas can be one of the most difficult areas to staff, operators say. Not only is turnover high in this area because pay is generally at or slightly above minimum wage, but there's also extra sensitivity because staff are working with children.

Reinig recommends his insured facilities do criminal background checks on all child facilitators. Most local sheriff departments will perform background checks for free, he says.

Some states require employers to do a background check on staff, even at non-licensed child care facilities. 24 Hour Fitness runs all attendants in its Kids Club through a background check, says Alexei Rudolf, spokesperson for 24 Hour.

Hockessin Athletic Club also runs background checks for all of its licensed child care employees, many of whom also work in the club's babysitting room. Although pay for the babysitting room is minimum wage, attendants receive free membership to the facility, which is worth close to $100 a month, Cantrell says.

The JCC Rockland in West Nyack, NY, looks for child care givers who have experience with children, are patient and have solid references, says Wayne Brown, marketing and membership director at the JCC. Attendants under the age of 18 are paid $8 an hour, and adults make $9 an hour. Members are charged $5 per hour per child, or they can purchase a discounted 10-hour card for $30, he says.

In December, JCC Rockland management installed a surveillance system in its babysitting room. By turning to channel 18 on a cardio machine's personal entertainment system, parents can watch their children in the babysitting room in real time. More than 50 pieces of equipment have access to the babysitting channel, Brown says.

“The cameras have been installed in babysitting since the inception of the facility so that members have peace of mind and a measure of trust in making sure their child is being taken care of properly,” Brown says.

Reinig says more facilities are investing in this type of technology or a surveillance system of some sort so that someone outside of child care can monitor the room.

In the Public Eye

Despite the need for increased surveillance and staff background checks, accidents and issues in the babysitting room at fitness facilities are fairly uncommon. Although owners, the public and the media may perceive child care as a liability, Reinig says that from an underwriter's point of view, babysitting in fitness facilities is relatively safe. Of the 3,800 health clubs that Reinig's company insures, 25 percent offer some form of child care. During the last 12 years, he has had 151 documented claims with an average of $5,845 paid out per claim. Compare that to 248 claims during the same period for incidents involving a treadmill. The average treadmill claim pays out $8,491, he says.

Drop-in child care or babysitting services add about $350 a year onto most facility's premiums. Insurance for full-time, licensed child care starts at about $1,500 per year for smaller clubs, Reinig says.

“Kids are kids and will hurt themselves and each other, whether or not there's someone watching them 24/7,” Reinig says. “Accidents happen. Our industry recognizes that and charges a low premium because we recognize it's relatively safe.”

One issue at a 24 Hour Fitness in Manteca, CA, caused a bit of a media stir when a local TV station reported in early February that a 3-year-old girl suffered repeated bite wounds from another child while she was inside a Kids Club at a 24 Hour Fitness. 24 Hour investigated the incident and found that it was an isolated event, Rudolf says.

“The club took steps to make sure the child who bit the other is no longer allowed in Kids Club, and team members received additional training on managing the areas,” he says.

Worth the Risk

Despite the possible costs, offering short-term child care is a must for attracting families, some nonprofit and for-profit operators say.

The La Crosse Area Family YMCA offers drop-in child care free to its family members at its two La Crosse, WI, locations. The Y's other programs subsidize the babysitting program's costs, says Jennie Melde, child care operations director at the Y. Ten years ago, management considered charging for the service but decided against it, she says.

“It's a member benefit, and we're a family-serving organization,” Melde says. “It's a quality service, and it hugely impacts why they join.”

Fitness Formula locations in Chicago charge members $19.95 monthly for the unlimited use of child care services, says Lauren Eller, human resources director for the company, which has seven full-service clubs and two corporate fitness centers.

“Our clubs located in a predominantly family market realize the great benefit to providing child care at the health club of their choice,” Eller says. “If we make it fun for the children, the parents will come to the club.”

Although operational costs for Kids Clubs vary at 24 Hour Fitness locations, most clubs offer the service for free or up to $3 per use. 24 Hour continues to offer short-term babysitting because some members say that the service is critical to them working out, Rudolf says.

At most of Prairie Life's locations, child care is typically $19.95 with a family membership, which provides free access to additional children's programming, including swimming lessons, Mahlendorf says.

Prairie Life received little negative feedback from its members regarding the KDHE investigation and TV story, Mahlendorf says. After the TV segment aired, the facility immediately hung signs on its child care room doors explaining the situation.

Prairie Life has also added background checks to its hiring process and plans to implement them soon, Mahlendorf says.

“We've never considered eliminating child care because one of our mottos is fitness for the entire family,” Mahlendorf says. “It's hard to stand by that motto if you don't offer it.”

Tips for Managing Risks In Babysitting Areas

  • Space design

    Hire an architect to help design your babysitting area. Be sure that the children's area is located near the front entrance and completely away from the workout floor. Children should never be allowed in the workout area, even if accompanied by the parent. Tables, cabinets and chairs should have smooth and rounded edges. Electrical outlets should be placed out of reach of all toddlers and have safety plates installed. All areas should be visible from any point within the room.

  • Staffing

    Conduct a background check on all employees who will have contact with children. When interviewing for this position, ask yourself, “Would I let this person babysit my own child?”

  • Digital surveillance cameras

    Camera systems are highly recommended. Whenever a child is injured, there is typically no possible defense. However, if there is tape of the accident taking place, it removes all doubt and clearly shows responsibility. Even if it is a club's fault, an insurance company can quickly determine the potential negligence and settle cases much more efficiently.

  • Waivers

    Although there is usually no defense when a child is injured, a well-written waiver and parent/guardian release form act as an effective deterrent.

  • Policies and age limitations

    As with your regular club policies and guidelines, you should have specific policies designated for the operation of your babysitting business. Your policies and guidelines should outline the age limitations, illness disclosure and specify that you will not change diapers or allow snacks due to food allergies. Also note that you have the right to refuse service to any unruly or high-maintenance child. Put these procedures in writing, and post them next to your child-sitting sign-in sheet. If you are going to allow infants, you should have at least two employees during all hours that infant care is offered — one designated for the babies and the other(s) for the rest of the children.

  • Toys

    If a toy or a piece of toy can fit through the inside of a toilet paper roll, then remove it from the babysitting area. If it can fit inside the roll, it will fit inside a child's throat. Also, don't have climbing toys such as slides in your babysitting room because children can easily fall and injure themselves or another child.
    Source: Association Insurance Group

Recommended Child to Staff Ratios
Age Maximum Child: Staff Ratio Maximum Group Size
Birth - 12 months 3:1 6
13 - 30 months 4:1 8
31 - 35 months 5:1 10
3-year-olds 7:1 14
4-year-olds 8:1 16
5-year-olds 8:1 16
6- to 8-year-olds 10:1 20
9- to 12-year-olds 12:1 24
Source: Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards, Second Edition

How to Handle Negative Media

Every club should have a media emergency plan in place for issues involving child care, says Casey Conrad, owner of Communications Consultants and president of Healthy Inspirations. Here are her tips on handling accidents and emergencies in the child care room:

  1. Designate one person and only one person as spokesperson for the facility.

  2. Train all of your staff members to direct and defer any comments or media requests to the club's spokesperson.

  3. Keep your databases current, and be prepared to immediately communicate with members in writing about the situation.

  4. Have a pre-arranged relationship with a professional who specializes in media. Immediately hire that person after an incident to do some damage control and work with the media to show your side of the story and how you're resolving the issue.

For more information on whether or not your state requires a license for babysitting or drop-in child care services, go to http://www.fitnessbusinesspro.com/images/stateregulations.pdf.