Catherine Higgins remembers a call from a mother who, looking from an office window, spotted her child playing outdoors without a hat.

For working parents this represents the ideal in child-care--having your children close by while you're on the job and knowing they're well cared for.

Higgins directs the Prince George's Hospital Childcare Center, where mothers and fathers employed at the hospital have had the luxury of an on-site, employer-sponsored program for three years. They are among the small but growing group of area employes that benefits from some sort of corporate child-care assistance.

"I don't know what I would do without the center," said Edmund Jones, a pharmacy technician at the hospital whose two sons attend the facility. "The boys come in to work with me every day and then they go home with me. They enjoy their friends there and I know they are in good hands."

Jones sums up the advantages of employer-sponsored day-care. These centers provide stable, well-run programs that save transportation time and expense and provide peace of mind for the employe. A few corporations provide rent-free space for on-site day-care. Others lease space to an outside company to run a program on their grounds and still others reserve slots at nearby child-care centers or simply provide an in-house day-care information clearinghouse for employes.

The reasons for the increasing emphasis on day-care stem from the recent rise in the numbers of two-income and single-parent families. Add to this the shortage of affordable, high-quality day-care services and changes in federal tax laws that benefit companies providing day-care.

"In Maryland we are not as into employer-sponsored day-care as in other parts of the country," said Helena Hicks, day-care program specialist for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "But we are moving in that direction and have a joint resolution in the House pending right now."

The resolution, introduced in the state legislature by Del. Bert Booth (D-Baltimore County), requests "the State Department of Economic and Community Development to promote business support for day-care services to the children of employes." Booth is optimistic about its passage sometime in the next few weeks. Other child-care bills pending in the General Assembly deal with tax credits for corporate-sponsored day-care and a fund to finance loans for day-care center start-up costs.

The interest in corporate day-care is small but growing. Hicks said she gets calls every week from employers or workers who are interested in how their companies can get involved in day-care assistance. She and other experts say few employers in the Maryland suburbs are pioneering in corpor ate child-care because of the types of businesses in the area. The large manufacturing companies with a majority of women workers that have been sensitive to child-care needs are not prevalent in Montgomery or Prince George's counties.

Though a child-care facility subsidized by the employer at the work place may be the ultimate commitment by a company, it is not the only solution for businesses sensitive to workers' needs.

"Corporate day-care takes many forms," said Hicks. Among these are renting space from local child-care centers for employes, forming consortiums with other companies to provide child-care, renting company space to a center, or starting a clearinghouse at the work place for child-care information. Businesses also can opt for a "cafeteria" approach. With so many families including two working parents, benefits often are duplicated. So, along with benefits now taken for granted--such as health insurance, sick-leave and vacations--employes could select day-care from a menu of optional benefits, in lieu of another benefit, said Hicks.

At Bethesda's National Institutes of Health, parents banded together eight years ago to form a child-care corporation. NIH provides space to the center and, according to director Sherrie Rudick, fees are paid on a sliding scale by parents from all departments of the facility: housekeepers, doctors and visiting scientists from around the world.

"The center works for many reasons," said Rudick. "Parents are close by so in an emergency they can be here in five minutes. They have less pressure to leave work because they don't have to drive an hour some place to pick up their child. And some have lunch with their child."

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt has given space to a parent-run facility as has USDA's Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville. "So many parents have told me how much peace of mind they have," said Goddard's day-care director Barbara Karth. "There haven't been any studies done about whether this keeps people from changing jobs, but I really think it does."

When Montgomery County wanted a day-care arrangement for employes, it contracted with the Montgomery County Child Daycare Association to set up a center in the county's Park Street building. In return for priority placement for children of county employes, the county rents space to the association, said director Barbara Kasten.

Millicent Grant, early childhood coordinator for the Montgomery Department of Family Resources, said that although no studies exist to show whether the center has attracted workers or boosted their productivity, "one of the things that the county can feel good about is that, in essence, they found a way to help employes without costing taxpayers money."

Hospitals such as Prince George's have been in the forefront of child-care, said Hicks, in part because of the high percentage of women employes and as a way to attract nurses, who are in short supply. The Prince George's center, which is open from 6:45 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. to accommodate several shifts, charges from $9.50 to $11.50 a day, taken out as a payroll deduction. "We use all departments of the hospital," said Higgins. "Housecleaning, maintenance, and if a child is sick, the pediatric clinic."

A child-care task force is scheduled to report to the Montgomery County Council next month on the results of a survey of 81 county employers to determine the role of the private sector in day-care.

Among the major findings: Only one employer responding offered on-site day-care as a worker benefit; fewer than 15 percent offered information and referral for child-care or financial contributions to a child-care program; and the majority of employers said they are not interested in providing any additional child-care related benefits in the future.

Though this last statistic alarms experts, they feel it is because not enough information is available to aid employers in making child-care decisions and often they are hesitant to take on additional costs.

According to Hicks, start-up costs for a typical child-care center for 50 to 60 children total about $125,000. But Grant stresses importance of other arrangements.

"There are many options for an employer but many only know about on-site day-care. That is very threatening to a company that does not have the resources to become that involved," said Grant. In addition, some parents may not want day-care at congested downtown companies but do not know enough about alternatives. Employers could help them find these alternatives.

Sometimes it takes pressure from the employes to get action. One local day-care administrator said she thinks the last resort for some day-care-hungry employes may be the Tomlin method: "Remember the movie '9 to 5'? One of the first things Lily Tomlin did after she tied up her boss and took over the company was to start a child-care center."