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Eleven of the nation's leading companies announced Thursday they have committed $25.4 million in an unprecedented collaborative effort to provide programs to care for employees' children and elderly relatives.

The initiative, billed as the largest of its kind in American business history, reflects the growing role of women in the labor force and the absence of government aid for working couples with dependents."It's a bold step for American corporations," said Dr. Bradley Googins, director of Boston University's Center on Work and Family. "It not only tries to rectify the problems of the inadequate government resources for dependent care, but says companies will play a more significant role in the community."

The project, called American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, will be funded by 137 companies. The 11 blue-chip corporations, however, form the core and will provide the bulk of the resources.

Companies leading the effort are: International Business Machines Corp., American Express Co., Exxon Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp., Travelers Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Amoco Corp., the Allstate unit of Sears Roebuck and Co., Motorola Inc. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

Funding will go toward 300 programs in 44 communities in 25 states and the District of Columbia. New programs will be created and existing ones expanded.

Programs will range from training for dependent care providers to the development and expansion of child-care facilities and school vacation programs.

"This is not just good corporate citizenship," Googins said. "Companies realize that if they want a healthy and productive work force these are issues they must address."

Labor Department research shows that at least 57 percent of women with children under six work outside the home, against 12 percent in 1950. By the end of the century, about two-thirds of new workers are expected to be women, and 75 percent of them will become pregnant during their working years.

In addition, about 40 percent of workers expect to be responsible for their aging parents in the next five years, according to the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

Recognizing that trend - and in the absence of government aid - more companies are spending more money on programs to help employees balance work and family, Working Mother magazine said in a survey late last year.

"Employees carry tremendous baggage that can interfere with their jobs," said Barbara Katersky, vice president for employee relations at American Express. "They worry about where their children are after school, about how to care for elderly relatives."

Initiated by IBM, secret meetings among company representatives began in April last year. An outline of the collaboration among companies that often are fierce rivals was first reported in July.