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Middle-class families struggle to find accessible, affordable child care

Voices for Utah Children analyst says there’s a wide gap between the value of what child care providers are giving versus what families are able to pay

Chris Conard picks up his daughter Hazel Conard from kindergarten at Whittier Elementary School in Salt Lake City before dropping her off at Makiko’s Daycare Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Chris Conard picks up his daughter Hazel Conard from kindergarten in Salt Lake City before dropping her off at a day care center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With school in full swing, full-time working parents are struggling to find affordable, high-quality child care.

Common scenarios in child care breakdowns — like a father staying home from work to care for a sick child, a mother leaving work in the middle of the day because a babysitter canceled, or a parent worrying about leaving their child at a neighbor or relative’s house — could significantly impact employers, just as much as families, by interrupting an employee’s productivity and affecting a company’s bottom line.

A family’s struggle

When Chris Conard’s first child started attending kindergarten this semester, he quickly learned that school day schedules don’t line up for households with two full-time working parents.

After their 6-year-old daughter was put on a waitlist for Salt Lake City School District’s after-school program, Conard and his wife have been forced to set up a complicated structure to balance their work and family lives.

Each weekday, Conard leaves work midafternoon to pick up his daughter from kindergarten. Afterward, he drives an additional 15 minutes to drop her off at day care with her 1-year-old brother, before making the trip back to work. He said the drive adds between 45 minutes to an hour each day.

“Thus, we are having to leave work every day to pick up our daughter and take her to day care for the remaining 1 1/2 hours of the work day,” he said.

Chris Conard drops off his daughter, Hazel, at Makiko’s Daycare Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Chris Conard drops off his daughter, Hazel, at a day care center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

While his flexible job allows him to take an hour out of his day to transport his daughter to day care, Conard often thinks about families who might not have that kind of option — particularly families who face language barriers, earn low incomes or work more than one job.

“I know that there are other families out there that are struggling harder than we are,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle, you’ve got to make all these pieces come together in the best way possible.”

When it comes to the cost of child care for his two children, Conard said the monthly bill comes to roughly the same cost as his mortgage, just $100 less.

Conard’s family isn’t alone.

“We’re still sort of playing out this idea that most kids are at home with at least one parent throughout the day, which is based on an assumption that most families can get by on one income,” said Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children. “That’s simply not the truth.”

Effects on an employer’s bottom line

Annually, American businesses lose an estimated $4.4 billion due to employee absenteeism as a result of child care breakdowns, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report.

Additionally, according to a workplace survey, 83% of millennials, who make up the largest group of new parents, would leave their job for one with better family benefits.

There’s a “big productivity issue,” Thomas said, that the lack of accessible and affordable child care could have on an employee. She wishes more companies could see the impact it has on employee performance.

At an Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee meeting last month, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, pointed out Utah is last in the nation in terms of access to child care, and the number of licensed child care providers has been decreasing since 2005.

Addressing the state’s shortage of affordable and quality child care is important not just for businesses to succeed, but for the future economy to succeed, she said.

“This is becoming a critical issue, and we need businesses to work together with government and community organizations to face and tackle this challenge head on,” she said, adding that 63% of Utah families could not afford child care.

Now, Harrison plans to reintroduce HB333, from the last legislative session.

The bill would allow the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to consider tax incentives to companies that offer child care related benefits for employees, like flexible work hours, paid family leave, onsite child care or partnership with a child care provider.

“It will also help engage and retain the workforce of today while taking care of the workforce of tomorrow,” Harrison said.

She added that she doesn’t believe the government should be the “the sole solution” to the child care shortage.

“I believe that the we need our private sector partners to step up and help lead out on addressing this challenge,” Harrison said. “We have a strong history of public-private partnerships in Utah, and this is one opportunity for the business community to lead out and help with innovative solutions.”

Aside from providing health care, vacation and stock options, founder and executive director of the Utah Child Care Cooperative, Page Checketts, said Utah companies “have to have benefits that exceed the expectations,” like child care.

Checketts said Harrison’s bill would send a message to Utah businesses.

“It gives the business sector a message that we care about families, and we care about kids,” she said.

Discussions around child care challenges have been seen as “taboo” in the workforce, she said, and encouraged business leaders to start conversations with their employees to create an open and transparent environment.

She said it’s not uncommon for parents to switch their careers or transition to part time because of the lack of child care accessibility in the state.

An undervalued job

Today, two-thirds of children under 5 live in homes where two parents work, compared to fewer than 10% in 1940, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report. Additionally, when companies provide child care, employee absences could decrease by 30% and job turnover declines could decrease by 60%.

Thomas said there’s a wide gap between the value of what child care providers are giving versus what families are able to pay.

“(Providers) can’t really charge what it’s worth, because nobody can even pay what it costs now,” she said. “It’s undervalued.”

Thomas said she’s spoken to child care providers who oftentimes work 12-hour days or more and make exceptions for parents who get off work later than a provider’s normal work hours. She said low wages can make it difficult for child care providers to stay in the profession and increase the turnover rates.

The high costs of child care

Matt Lyon, a father of two whose wife also works full time, joked that getting a child enrolled in an after-school program was as difficult as buying “Hamilton” tickets.

Like a concertgoer would wake up early to try for tickets to a show, Lyon recalled waking up on registration day in July at 7 a.m. to register his child for an after-school program and successfully secured a spot for his 5-year-old son.

Before his son was old enough to attend kindergarten, Lyon said child care for both his children was more expensive than his mortgage. His youngest child is currently enrolled full time at a day care.

“People who provide child care, they’re great. ... They deserve far more than what they’re earning,” he said. “They’re not earning what they deserve.”

Chris Conard drops off his daughter, Hazel, at Makiko’s Daycare Center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Chris Conard drops off his daughter, Hazel, at a day care center in Murray on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Thomas said it’s important for both government and businesses to intervene in the child care shortage.

In addition to providing vacation, sick days and health benefits for employees, Thomas believes child care should be added to the equation.

Even when parents are able to find a suitable day care, Thomas said it’s important for children to have patterns and consistency in their lives and schedules.

“If you drop your kid off at the child care provider’s home every day and there’s a new helper every single time you drop them off, that does create some negative impacts for kids,” she said.