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Guest opinion: Affordable and available child care is essential for Utah’s economy

Research from Child Care Aware America found the annual cost of day care could cost more than college tuition. Getty Images

We do a lot of things right here in Utah. We have a strong economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But this growth and prosperity is creating a significant challenge for many working parents who need affordable and quality child care.

Utah is last in the nation for access to child care. The number of licensed child care providers has steadily decreased since 2005 even as our population is growing. Today, there is 1 slot for every 4 children who need child care. Many families face long waitlists for openings, a problem faced by parents in both urban and rural counties.

Child care in Utah is also increasingly unaffordable. It ranks among the top three expenses for families. Sixty-three percent of Utah families can’t afford daycare and the costs are steadily increasing, even while wages remain largely stagnant, according to a study from Utah Valley University.

Parents often spend a quarter of their income on child care. In some cases, child care for an infant can cost nearly $10,000 a year — more than a year of college at some public universities. The child care costs for two kids (a 4-year-old and an infant) becomes more than $17,000 a year, according to the nonprofit Childcare Aware.

Most Utah families shoulder the costs of child care. One study found that 1 in 3 Utah parents cut back on work hours because of unmet child care needs. Another study reports that almost half of surveyed parents say they would utilize child care in order to work more, or further their education if they could.

State and federal assistance programs can help mostly lower income families, but government should not be the only entity supporting families. Clearly, the market isn’t responding to this demand fast enough. We need businesses, community organizations and government to work together to address this challenge. Working parents need to know that their kids are safe and receiving care in a reliable and nurturing environment.

Nationally, businesses see that helping working families to be successful also improves a company’s performance. Businesses that offer child care benefits have seen a 30% decrease in employee absences and a 60% reduction in job turnover. These are compelling numbers in a state where businesses are competing to attract and retain talented workers. Locally, companies like Health Catalyst, Overstock and CHG healthcare offer their employees child care benefits because it makes them more effective overall.

Jenny Brumble, the HR manager for Draper-based Academy Mortgage, recently shared how the lack of affordable child care options impacts all employees in the workplace. “Finding better options for working parents with young children would be a win on all sides — more accessible, more affordable childcare equates to less stressed, more engaged employees.”

Fortunately, we are already seeing local innovation and coordination happening. The Utah Child Care Cooperative is working to coordinate child care resources across employers to better meet the needs of their employees with children.

On the state side, we are looking for ways to innovate as well. In the 2019 session, I introduced HB333 to encourage businesses to help address this challenge. This bill allows the Governor’s Office for Economic Development to consider whether a company offers child care related benefits for employees — such as flexible work schedules, paid family leave, onsite childcare or a partnership with a local quality childcare business — when considering tax incentives.

Utah business leaders want to help their employees by acting on this shortage of quality childcare options, but they need guidance and a consortium of child care options. We have resolved many challenges in Utah through public-private partnerships. The Workforce Development Incentive Amendments bill simply encourages the private sector to again lead out, while helping working families and our economy succeed.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison represents the people of Sandy, White City and Draper in Utah’s House District 32.