Economy depends on accessible, affordable child care

Nov. 14—Pennsylvania employers are bearing the brunt of the lack of child care programs as they struggle to fill positions left vacant due to workers' inability to find affordable and accessible day care.

The lack of child care "is a barrier to the workforce," said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and member of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC).

Simply put, SUMMIT Early Learning Executive Director Doug Bertanzetti said, "If you don't have affordable child care you don't have parents in the workforce."

It's estimated that the lack of child care services has a $3.47 billion annual impact on Pennsylvania's economy, including losses in direct employer costs and tax revenue, according to a joint study by the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC) and PA Chamber of Business and Industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the problem as more than 1,000 Pennsylvania child care programs have closed in the past 19 months, said Art Thomas, chairman of the Susquehanna Valley ELIC.

"We know the closure of child care centers has caused many parents to remain out of the workforce," he said.

Adds Jen Debell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, "We really don't function as an economy without child care."

Fifty-four percent of 284 Pennsylvania employers surveyed in April attributed the loss of employees during the pandemic to child care.

"It's abundantly clear that too many working women are leaving the workforce and we as a society cannot afford to lose these talented people," Barr said. "It's an issue we should be able to resolve."

Critical to operation

Child care is critical to the operation of Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg where 80 percent of the 2,000 employees are women, said president and CEO Kendra Aucker.

"We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and need individuals for all shifts," she said.

Despite increasing the minimum wage of one-third of the hospital staff and permitting 100 employees to work remotely during the pandemic, Aucker said, the hospital has lost many staff who have decided to leave or retire and she's currently grappling with having to fill 200 vacant positions.

The reduction in the Valley's labor force cuts across all areas as Aucker cites a 3 percent decrease, or 2,600 fewer people in Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties looking for a job.

"That means all businesses are competing for a smaller piece of the pie," she said. "We're getting one-quarter of the applications we used to get."

Hospital employees have pitched in by taking on extra responsibilities in several areas, including patient care and housekeeping. Among them are Alison A. Browne who spends her days working as Aucker's executive assistant and then four hours a night keeping dementia patients company to relieve overworked nursing staff, Aucker said.

Supporting families

A majority of employer respondents to the joint ELIC and Chamber study said they would be interested in finding additional ways to support working families and children as a way of retaining and attracting employees, improving workplace morale and increasing productivity.

Of the 284 Pennsylvania employer respondents, 72 percent said they allowed employees to work remotely or flexible hours during the pandemic; 27 percent said they gave unpaid leave to workers dealing with child care issues; 24 percent provided paid leave and 19 percent provided a dependent care expense account.

Ronn Cort, president of Sekisui Kydex, a plastics manufacturing company that operates two plants in Bloomsburg and one in Holland, Michigan, has for years tried to resolve the issue for his 218 employees in Pennsylvania.

In 2014, he purchased a second, 600,000-square-foot facility in Bloomsburg and built a nearly 8,000 square-foot day care center on site with plans to offer the service to employees free-of-charge and 24-hours a day to cover employees working all shifts in 2019.

The day care space largely sits empty today because of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as insurance issues and a lack of day care providers willing to lease it for $1 a year and provide the service.

"There is a child care desert," he said of the lack of child care providers in Pennsylvania. "And this was before the pandemic."

The problem is so serious, Cort said, none of his employees have accepted his company's offer of a $10,000 reimbursement for continuing education due to child care issues.

"That was an 'aha moment' learning that people are caught in a cycle," he said. "They have an opportunity to move up but the cost of child care is untouchable."