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

For nearly a year after the pandemic, the founder and CEO of Dorchester-based Maven Construction found herself with an additional — unofficial — title.

“Chief childcare 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 childcare to keep her business going. She had to care for her own 8-year-old daughter when her primary school closed, and later when her classes were remote. Many of her staff had children who could not go to school either. So, some parents brought their children to work with them and took turns watching them.

“We had to turn ourselves into a bit of a temporary daycare,” Burton said. “There were offices we used where we had to set aside space for children.”

Schools have since reopened, but for parents with children under 5, childcare is an ongoing 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 pandemic-related disruptions and labor shortages, and more of them have come 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’s seen a big shift in the business community. Last year, he helped start a group of more than 80 business leaders hoping to push for improvements in the state’s child care system.

“I don’t think employers see it 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 works with local childcare centers and pays 65% of tuition for its employees’ children. Meads said the benefit, which was in place long before the pandemic, made the bank a more competitive employer.

“We were able to retain a lot of employees because of that,” Meads said. “The cost that you would spend in time and resources to train someone, it’s much 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 find childcare during the pandemic, Burton called childcare centers on their behalf. When places opened up near a project site, she immediately paid the deposits to secure them.

Conscientious business owners will know this is now something they have to contend with,” Burton said.

Burton also negotiated with suppliers for early morning hours, a necessity in the construction business. She plans to keep it up. In fact, she now plans for childcare when the company takes on new projects. That means identifying providers near workplaces and locking in the seats her employees’ children need.

“In the project plan, we’re definitely thinking about that right now,” Burton said. “We wouldn’t have thought of that before.”

Sarah Berkley, a manager for corporate benefits consultancy NFP, said more businesses were adding childcare benefits. A common offer is 10 days of subsidized back-up care, which allows parents to drop their children off at a nearby center or book an approved caretaker for the day.

Berkley used the childcare benefit herself when the babysitter called in sick for her 2-year-old son.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a lifesaver for sure.”

Sarah Berkley with her son, Cole.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sarah Berkley with her son, Cole. She is grateful for the childcare benefits her company offers. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Foster the dog joins Sarah Berkley and Cole as they eat breakfast.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Foster the dog joins Sarah Berkley and Cole as they eat breakfast before Berkley goes to work. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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

Still, it is unusual for many American employers to absorb a significant portion of child care costs.

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

“I was now thinking of 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 must 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 childcare 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 by public-private partnership,” Weber said. “It’s certainly not going to be achievable by continuing to put it solely on the shoulders of families.”

A box of crayons in a classroom at Ellis Early Learning in Boston.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Some employers are beginning to see childcare as a workforce 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 cost 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. This is part of what motivated JC Burton to incorporate childcare into her business. After all, women only make up 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 need to think about what that looks like for childcare and access to childcare,” she said.

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

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