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Most child care centers, like this one in Waltham, closed down in March 2020 as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Child care is a problem for employers, too. Now more of them want solutions

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For almost a year after the pandemic hit, the founder and CEO of Maven Construction in Dorchester found herself with an added — unofficial — title.

"Chief child care coordinator," recalled JocCole "JC" Burton. It "was a task and a job I didn't know I would ever have."

But Burton had to think about child care to keep her business running. She needed to care for her own 8-year-old daughter when her elementary school closed, and later when her classes went remote. Many of her staff had kids who couldn't go to school, either. So, some parents brought their kids to work with them and took turns watching them.

"We had to turn ourselves into a little temporary day care," Burton said. "There were offices that we utilized where we had to set aside space for kids."

Schools have since reopened, but for parents with kids under 5, child care is a lingering problem.

Children learn how to plant beans in a classroom at Ellis Early Learning in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Children learn how to plant beans in a classroom at Ellis Early Learning in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Many employers have faced pandemic-related disruptions and labor shortages, and more of them have started to see child care as a workforce issue, according to Tom Weber, who leads the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education.

Weber said he has seen a major shift in the business community. Last year, he helped launch a group of more than 80 business leaders hoping to push for improvements in the state's child care system.

"I don't think that employers see it so much as their responsibility, as much as they see it as their enlightened self-interest," Weber said, "because they desperately need workers."

One of the coalition members, Lori Meads, is the CEO of Seamen’s Bank on Cape Cod. The company partners with local child care centers and pays 65% of tuition for its employees' children. Meads said the benefit, which was in place long before the pandemic, has made the bank a more competitive employer.

"We've been able to keep many employees because of it," Meads said. "The cost that you would spend on time and resources to train someone, it is far more beneficial to help them in this way and be able to keep them in the workforce."

"I don't think that employers see it so much as their responsibility, as much as they see it as their enlightened self-interest, because they desperately need workers."

Tom Weber

When her employees struggled to locate child care during the pandemic, Burton called child care centers on their behalf. When spots opened up near a project site, she immediately paid the deposits to secure them.

"Conscientious business owners will know that this is now something they have to grapple with," Burton said.

Burton also negotiated with providers for early morning hours, a necessity in the construction business. She plans to keep doing this. In fact, she now plans for child care when the company takes on new projects. That means identifying providers near job sites and locking in the seats her employees' children need.

"In the project plan, we're certainly thinking about that now," Burton said. "We would not have previously thought about that."

Sarah Berkley, a manager for the corporate benefits consulting company NFP, said more businesses have been adding child care benefits. A common offering is 10 days of subsidized backup care, which allows parents to drop off their kids at a nearby center or book a vetted caretaker for the day.

Berkley has used the child care benefit herself when the nanny for her 2-year-old son called out sick.

"It’s great," she said. "It’s a savior for sure."

Sarah Berkley with her son, Cole. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sarah Berkley with her son, Cole. She's grateful for the child care benefits her company offers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Foster, the dog, joins Sarah Berkley and Cole as they have breakfast. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Foster, the dog, joins Sarah Berkley and Cole as they have breakfast before Berkley heads to work. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Bright Horizons, a Newton-based company with child care centers around the world, said it has seen a 28% increase in the number of U.S. business clients who’ve added backup child care since the start of the pandemic.

Still, it's unusual for many American employers to take on a significant portion of child care costs.

Lamia Ellithui has been working as a housekeeper at a Boston hotel for nearly three years. She makes a union wage of $26 per hour and receives no child care benefits from her employer. She finds it difficult to afford full-time care for her two young children.

"I was thinking now about quitting my job because I don’t have a choice," she said. "At the same time, if I quit, I can’t pay our bills."

When employees leave jobs or reduce their hours, it can have economic consequences for their families — and for their employers, who have to recruit and train new workers. Weber believes there is increasing support from the business community to find solutions to this problem. What businesses don’t want to do, he said, is foot a massive child care bill on their own.

That's why the coalition is putting its weight behind state legislation that would pave the way for more long-term investments in child care and early education.

"I think that this is best solved through public-private partnership," Weber said. "Certainly it’s not going to be achievable by continuing to place it on the shoulders of families alone.”

A box of crayons in a classroom at Ellis Early Learning in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Some employers are beginning to see child care as a work force issue. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that inadequate child care costs employers in the state more than $800 million a year.  The pro-business public policy group used national census data to estimate the costs of turnover, labor replacement and lost productivity in Massachusetts.

The group also estimated that workers in the state, especially women, lose more than $1.7 billion in wages a year. That's part of what motivated JC Burton to incorporate child care into her business. After all, women make up only 11% of the construction industry. She wants to see that number increase.

"If our workforce is ever going to be equitable, where there are women involved or people of color involved, we have to think about what that looks like for child care and having access to child care," she said.

The future of her company, Burton said, depends on working parents.

This segment aired on June 15, 2022.

The cost of care:

Yasmin Amer Twitter Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.

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