THE CHILD CARE SHUFFLE
Employees and employers tackle a child care crisis
BY DEVON JACKSON
When employees suddenly found themselves working from home during the initial COVID-19 closures three years ago, they were asked to juggle job and household duties. Businesses in Santa Fe and across the country tried to adapt and provide resources. At least local two credit unions experimented with, or explored, on-site child care. But systemwide solutions were hardly nimble.
When employers wanted workers back in the office, employees faced another type of child care crisis. Some had a new perspective about keeping their children close, and many struggled to find viable and affordable solutions. Most off-the-cuff pandemic child care endeavors had disappeared, and parents were facing child care costs that rose 63% over 2021, according to a survey by online child care marketplace Care.com. Two thirds of the families surveyed reported they spent more than $10,000 a year on child care in 2022. Parents, their children, and child care workers found themselves right back where they’d been before the pandemic: seen but not heard.
The situation has Americans and Santa Feans rethinking traditional approaches to child care that don’t always reflect the modern workforce and has them calling for change, such as on-site child care options, affordable costs, and improved wages for child care workers. Employers are slowly seeing the value too, as child care access increasingly becomes a recruitment and retention tool.
“Child care is women’s work — so women can work,” says Santa Fe city councilor Jamie Cassutt, herself the mother of a four-year-old. “Unfortunately, that means that it has been really discounted and underpaid. So we need a shift, and people need to understand it’s not just about the families. It’s not just about the women. It is, and we have to think about that too. But it is about the benefit to society.”
“A lot of child care providers closed during the pandemic and haven’t reopened, partly because the pay isn’t enough,” says Bridget Dixson, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. “We need to work on elevating this profession. If we want to see our workforce
recover, we need some sort of on-site child care. And we have to be willing to pay more for child care or find some way to contribute to child care.”
Last year, Growing Up New Mexico, Santa Fe’s early childhood wellbeing advocates, released a research study that clarifies the need for child care — and the need for change in the industry. It illuminated that: Every year, U.S. families lose out on $8.3 billion in wages due to a lack of child care, and U.S. businesses lose $3 billion annually due to employee absenteeism resulting from child care issues.
By the fall of 2020, there were roughly 1.2 million fewer parents in the U.S. workforce than before the start of the pandemic. And 900,000 of those parents were women.
More than two years after the start of the pandemic, the child care workforce continues to operate below pre-pandemic levels (a loss of 100,000 workers, or 10 percent, nationwide).
The poverty rate for early educators in New Mexico is 27.4 percent — more than twice as high as for New Mexico workers in general. There are local movements afoot to encourage businesses to address these needs. Dixson and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce have organized a task force to support businesses in seeking child care solutions. Los Alamos National Laboratory, a major employer with more than 14,000 workers under its umbrella, expects to open a child care facility in proximity to its main buildings in fall 2023. Tricia Ware, LANL’s Community Partnerships Office’s media relations liaison, is careful to clarify: “It will not be on lab property and not behind the fence but a facility in the Los Alamos townsite.” In other words, the facility will be close enough to where employees work so a mom can, say, breastfeed her child unhurriedly if she wants. “This is something employees have been asking for a long time,” says Patrick Duran, economic development outreach specialist with LANL’s Community Partnerships Office. “Now post-COVID, it’s really intensified the issue. It’s very important to enabling employees to have the necessary work–life balance so that they can feel like they have the key to being successful at their jobs.”
Since 2015, LANL employees have been caring for more than 3,500 children under the age of 13, including 1,290 children under the age of 5. And in a recent LANL survey, only 22 percent of employees said they have the child care they need. More tellingly, based on exit interviews, close to 60 percent of those who took jobs elsewhere left LANL because of the challenges of finding good child care. “So this has been something that has moved forward at a pretty fast pace,” says Duran.
“When a business or an organization can offer quality child care on-site, that becomes a huge recruiting advantage,” says Micah McCoy, communications director for the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD). “It can also be great for retention.” That’s why Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham directed the State Personnel Office, the General Services Department, and the ECECD to identify unused spaces in state government buildings, convert and license them as child care facilities, and recruit established child care center operators to take over the spaces. After soliciting proposals from child care centers across the state, the SPO entered into a business agreement with one and recently opened a child care center at Santa Fe’s Joseph Montoya and Lamy Buildings, creating 52 new child care slots for the children of state employees. Santa Fe Public Schools has also licensed an on-site child care center for employees, and two other school districts have reached out to the ECECD about on-site child care as well. Taos High School has a child care center, which is used by school employees and high school students who are also parents.
Seeing child care as an enabler to work, providing companies with tax credits in return for child care stipends, and normalizing parental leaves of absence are all signs of a national paradigm shift in employees’ expectations — and their demands.
Seeing child care as an enabler to work, providing companies with tax credits in return for child care stipends, and normalizing parental leaves of absence are all signs of a national paradigm shift in employees’ expectations — and their demands. Employers are scrambling to keep up. “We’re not experts in child care,” admits LANL’s Duran. “And everybody has different expectations of what their child care needs are. Which is why we want somebody that has that expertise. So yes, we’re kind of figuring this out as we go. We’re charting new territory.” LANL recruited a local professional child care provider to staff its center, which aims to serve mostly infants and toddlers but which will be open to children up to 12 years of age. Just like any off-site child care facility, a companyrun child care center has to be licensed, insured, and staffed with trained caretakers.
“The problem in the industry isn’t just the high costs and not enough money, but you’re asking businesses to go into an entirely different lane of operations,” says Kate Noble, Growing Up’s vice president for policy and stakeholder development. “When you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s very, very complicated. It’s like opening a whole other business. So we need all the solutions.”
The need for qualified child care providers — and the lack of them — led the city to develop a pilot program at Santa Fe Community College focused on building — and rebuilding — Santa Fe’s child care workforce. “We need to develop child care as a professional sector, not just see it as an addendum,” says Noble. “It needs to be treated more professionally.” “At the end of the day, what’s most important is finding child care options that are affordable for families, that meet the needs of the hours they have, and that make sure we’re providing a high quality, safe environment for children,” says Cassutt. “It’s a public benefit, one that benefits our entire community. We’re going to have to find ways to support it.”
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