About 16 Washington-area companies have established on-site day-care centers for their employes, with hospitals leading the way because the service has become a tool in recruiting nurses.

Seven government agencies have organized day-care centers so employes can have their children nearby while they work. Several local colleges and universities, including Montgomery College, Northern Virginia Community College and the University of the District of Columbia, have day-care centers for children of their students, faculty and staff.

Government Employees Insurance Co., Riggs National Bank and International Business Machines Corp. are among firms considering providing space for child care. Each sent representatives to a recent seminar featuring Dana Friedman, a New York consultant on employer-sponsored child care.

Currently, 160 companies nationwide have organized day-care centers at or near their work places. Because an estimated 50 percent of women with children under 6 are in the work force, the demand for company run day-care centers is expected to increase, Friedman said.

Eight of the Washington area's 18 hospitals provide day-care for children of employes. Parents can visit their children during lunch or dinner breaks, comfort them if they become ill and attend special events at the center. Several of the hospitals provide care for children under 2, a rarity among independent day-care centers.

"Our people can't use regular baby sitters or day-care centers that they have to commit themselves to five days a week" because of frequent schedule changes, said Frances Damico, director of the day-care center at Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria.

The Mount Vernon center, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., charges parents only when they use the service, Damico said. Prince George's General Hospital provides evening care until 12:15 a.m. for staff members on the evening shift.

Mount Vernon's day-care center has a maximum enrollment of 50 children a day but serves 170 families because some parents need the center only a few days a week. The center charges $15 a day for children under 1 year and $12 a day for all others, Damico said.

The majority of the hospitals subsidize their day-care centers so employes can afford them. Capitol Hill Hospital in the District, for example, spent about $40,000 to renovate vacant space and an additional $10,000 to buy equipment for its center, which opened last October, spokeswoman Jacqueline Pollock said. The hospital pays about half the $15-a-day cost of keeping each child, or about $74,000 a year, Pollock said. Parents pay $7 a day, she added.

"The center is successful because it's reasonable," Pollock said. "If it was $15 per day, no one would use it."

But the expenses are worthwhile, she said, because "we're all vying for registered nurses, and if you're offering an RN registered nurse quality child care, it's a big boost."

Officials at Howard University Hospital, also in the District, said absenteeism generally has been reduced among parents whose children are enrolled at the hospital's day-care center.

The service has been so successful that Howard is spending $180,000 to renovate three nearby town houses so it can expand the day-care center from 15 children to 60, said Mercedes Palmer, the center's director.

Parents whose children are enrolled in centers at their work place say they appreciate the convenience of being able to take the children to work with them and to be closer to the children.

"I find it nice that I can participate more directly in my child's school life," said Alice Danner, who works in the public relations office at the U.S. Department of Labor and who has put her son in the department's day-care center. "I can go down when my child has a birthday and take a half an hour to attend his birthday party. I couldn't do that if he was at some other center."

Parents working at local radio and television stations have established the only noninstitutional day-care center for workers in that industry here.

The Broadcasters Child Development Center, 5701 Broad Branch Rd. NW, was founded in 1980 by parents who work in the industry as everything from radio and television anchors to technicians. The center has received grants from five local television and radio stations and the D.C. chapter of the National Academy of the Television Arts and Sciences, a professional association.

The center is open to the public, but children of television and radio personnel receive first priority on its long waiting list, center director Abbey Griffin said.