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Child care system ‘crippled’ by pandemic, needs ‘influx of resources’ to survive; Cowlitz County better than neighbors

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 5, 2021

By Marissa Heffernan Daily News (Longview,)

Southwest Washington employers racked up $83.5 million in costs in 2019 when employees missed work because they had no child care, according to a report from Washington Communities for Children.

Local child care experts say the pandemic has only worsened the crisis and serious steps will have to be taken to repair the damage.

Debbie Ham, executive director of Support for Early Learning and Families, said data shows child care availability was a problem before the pandemic, is a problem now and will continue to be a problem until steps are taken to shore up the industry.

“A child care system that was already in crisis has been crippled,” she said.

In Cowlitz County 34% of families lack child care, according to the Washington Child Care Task Force, but that’s a lower percentage than the rest of Southwest Washington and much of the state. For example, 54% of families in nearby Wahkiakum County lack child care.

Workforce Southwest Washington carried out a local Business Case for Childcare study to quantify the cost of the lack of child care. Thirty-two local businesses were asked about the availability and affordability of child care, as well as the effect of the level of childcare on their employees.

Affordability was the main challenge to employees getting child care, according to 61% of employers, while nearly 52% said childcare availability was a substantial concern.

Businesses added off-time child care was even harder to find, if employees needed to work past 5 p.m.

“When a parent is unable to work due to lack of affordable and accessible childcare, it impacts not only the family but the employer and ultimately the economy,” said Workforce Southwest Washington CEO Kevin Perkey in a news release. “Businesses are struggling with employee recruitment and retention due to the childcare crisis.”

Ham said a similar survey of Clark County in 2019 revealed 80% of the 104 surveyed employers said they had employees who came to work late or left early, didn’t accept promotions or even quit because of their childcare issues.

“For any business in the community that’s looking for employees, (child care) affects their bottom line and ability to have a stable workforce,” she said.

While child care is necessary for other businesses, Ham said it’s important to remember that child care centers themselves are also businesses, “typically small businesses often run by women and often minority owned.”

“Having that business infrastructure be solid is important for the people who own those businesses and supporting their families and also haves a huge impact on the community,” she said. “Working parents need a stable, affordable, effective, quality system so they can go to work and support their families and employers need that workforce.”

According to the Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force, lack of access to affordable child care keeps over 133,000 potential workers out of Washington’s labor force, causing an estimated $14.7 billion loss in personal earnings, $56.8 billion loss in business output and over $1 billion in lost tax revenue annually.

However, only 32% of businesses interviewed would be willing to commit to providing resources to developing a solution, according to the report, because of uncertainty over the cost of hosting their own child care centers.

Ham said the Clark County Business Leader Child Care survey also found “resource-intensive supports” like employer sponsored backup child care, bring your baby to work policies, on-site child care and subsidizing employee child care costs were the least attractive to employers.

Breastfeeding policies and flexible work schedules were the most popular supports among employers, according to the survey.

Ham said in the short term, “an influx of resources” is needed to stop more child care centers from closing down due to the pandemic, along with “more intentionality about how we shore up the child care industry.”

“Child care is equally important and has a unique economic impact on our system and our economic vitality,” she said. “I see and read and hear so much about other industries (needing help), which is important to share, but child care to a large degree … is not held up in an equal way. That’s impacted how funds are distributed.”

In the long term, she said policy changes and a reform of the industry’s structure is needed.

“We need to look at how we can reinvent the industry and field instead of continuing to operate the way it was,” she said. “It was a crisis before the pandemic.”

Over the past two legislative sessions, local representatives have introduced several bills to address the lack of affordable childcare.

In the last legislative session Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, D-Portland, introduced the Child Care is Essential Act to establish a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund to give grants to families and providers, but it stalled in the senate.

Third District Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose district includes Cowlitz County, recently introduced a Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act in response to the shortage of affordable child care facilities and professionals, especially in rural areas.

This bipartisan legislation is intended to create a $100 million grant program to “address the growing crisis of child care accessibility and affordability,” a press release said. The grants could be used for training and retaining qualified professionals and to build or and expand child care centers.

“Prior to the pandemic, Southwest Washington was already considered a ‘child care desert,’ and COVID has only magnified that challenge for families here and across the country,” Herrera Beutler said in a news release.

She added addressing the child care crisis was necessary to “get our economy back up and running.”

Herrera Beutler introduced the same bill last session, but it did not make it out of committee.

In its recent report, the Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force recommended that the state support providers participating in the state’s child care subsidy program, help working parents enter, re-enter and stay in the labor force and improve child care workforce compensation and development.

There will be a second phase of the Workforce Southwest Washington project to develop a model for increasing child care capacity through a private-public partnership, which should be presented in July.

Ham said capacity is an issue, but so is staffing shortages, because with the level of training needed to work in child care, people could make more at a school. She said there are many factors that play into the current crisis, which is why large-scale change is needed.

“There needs to be a lot of work on community and state levels about what does this look like (to reform the industry),” she said. “What can we do as a community to fill some of those gaps? We’re hoping to have more conversations around this.”

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