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‘Parents were going to all lengths of heroism’ balancing childcare and work obligations

Barb Steele, left, and Tera Herting, lead infant teachers, watch infants play and nap at Promise Day Care near Bellingham. Parents often have trouble finding child care, especially for infants and toddlers. “Families are really struggling to find quality care, and be able to work,” says Kim Walbeck, director of Promise Day Care.
Barb Steele, left, and Tera Herting, lead infant teachers, watch infants play and nap at Promise Day Care near Bellingham. Parents often have trouble finding child care, especially for infants and toddlers. “Families are really struggling to find quality care, and be able to work,” says Kim Walbeck, director of Promise Day Care. evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

Whatcom County parents searching for child care are burdened by high costs — the highest in Washington state in one category — and wait lists of a year or more.

But, child care isn’t a problem for parents alone. Their struggles are spilling over into the workplace in Whatcom County.

They’re late to their jobs. They’re missing work. Their productivity is down. They’re quitting their jobs. The problems experienced by employers here are being reported across the state and throughout the nation.

So business organizations and employers are getting involved in what has been called a crisis as they try to help workers, and work toward solutions.

Among those efforts, the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce recently asked Whatcom County employers to take part in a survey about child care needs that also suggested some solutions, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation took a big-picture look in a June 2017 report titled “Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow: The Business Case for High-Quality Childcare.”

The lack of child care, and its high cost, is a problem that’s been building.

“It’s a new crest of a long existing wave,” said David Webster, director of Early Learning and Family Services at the nonprofit Opportunity Council, which is leading the effort to create more child care in Whatcom County.

A family with a median income of $57,291 will spend 35 percent of their income to put their infant and preschooler in licensed family child care in Whatcom County, which is the most expensive in the state, according to an analysis by Karen Sampson of Child Care Aware of Washington.

A licensed family child care is one that’s in a provider’s home.

A Whatcom County family will spend 38 percent of their income to put an infant and preschooler in a licensed center. That’s the second highest in the state, according to Sampson.

Sampson analyzed data for the 22 counties in the state that had 10 or more child care centers and the 26 counties with 10 or more family child care providers.

“It is the economic issue it’s always been,” Webster added, “but maybe employers were buffered from it because parents were going to all lengths of heroism to try to maintain their family’s quality of life and be a good employee.”

Not just a problem for parents

A total of 33 Whatcom County employers took the survey conducted by the Opportunity Council in partnership with the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Those who responded have more than 5,900 workers, and their workforce ranged from two to more than 750 employees. The median was 50 workers.

Their answers show how parents’ problems with child care affect their bosses:

  • 88 percent of responding employers said child care barriers — availability and cost were the main problems — affected their workers’ job performance.

  • Employee absence was the biggest issue, according to 80 percent of employers.

  • 69 percent reported that employees were late for work, making it the second biggest issue.

  • 50 percent said they had problems with recruiting. One employer said being able to get people in for an interview was an issue.

  • 44 percent said they had problems keeping employees. One employer said workers have resigned after having their babies because they couldn’t find child care for infants.

“It certainly confirmed our suspicions regarding national trends on a local level,” said Guy Occhiogrosso, president/CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, of the survey results.

Some solutions were proposed in the survey. They were:

  • Flexible work schedules because child care hours often differ from traditional work hours. Without that flexibility, parents have to scramble to find a friend to pick up their child or leave work early, the Opportunity Council wrote.

  • Offer child care at work or partner with a licensed child care center because it would improve employee productivity and retention. The Opportunity Council and others point to outdoor apparel company Patagonia, which estimates a return of up to 125 percent on investments for its on-site child care program. That’s based on tax benefits, and improved employee retention, loyalty and engagement.

  • Encouraging people to share their concerns about child care access with legislators or at speaking engagements. “Make it clear to the community that child care not only affects parents and children — it impacts the growth of business in Whatcom County,” the Opportunity Council stated.

Some Whatcom County employers already are helping their workers.

Saturna Capital helps employees pay for child care, while PeaceHealth and WECU set up flexible spending accounts that allow workers to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for child care. Western Washington University provides child care to employees and students at its Associated Students Child Development Center on its Bellingham campus.

The bottom line

How much do child care problems cost the Whatcom County economy? That’s not known for the county or Washington state, which has some of the least affordable child care in the nation, according to Child Care Aware of America.

Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation estimates a breakdown in child care costs businesses more than $3 billion a year, adding that 74 percent of working parents have said that child care problems affect their jobs.

Seeing the need statewide, businesses and government are participating in a state Department of Commerce task force that will examine how child care affordability and accessibility are affecting businesses and the workforce, and what can be done to improve both. A report is due out by Nov. 1, 2019.

“It’s certainly not unique to one county or one region. This is something we are all thinking about,” said Caitlin Codella, senior director for policy with the foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.

The foundation and its report —“Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow: The Business Case for High-Quality Childcare” — examine the changing demographics of the workforce and the attendant pressure that has created.

For example, two-thirds of U.S. children are from a home where all parents work, Codella said. In 1940, that was closer to 1 in 10 children.

And 40 percent of the primary breadwinners are mothers, she added. Without women, the economy would be $2 trillion smaller and the median family income would be $14,000 less.

“Women are increasingly becoming not only a bigger part of the workforce, but families are counting on their income,” Codella said. “The world of work has changed and we need to change.”

That, in turn, has led the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and others, including in the state and Whatcom County, to push for high-quality child care.

Coming up: Why is it so hard to find affordable child care in Whatcom County? Parents and providers share their stories. What’s being done to open more child care slots? And what do those in the field mean when they’re referring to high-quality child care and why does that matter? We’d like to hear from you.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Finding good child care can be difficult. Here are five safety concerns parents and guardians should talk about with child care providers.

Need help?

If you’re looking for child care, call the toll free number for Child Care Aware of Northwest Washington at 800-446-1114.

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