BRATTLEBORO—An employer in northern Vermont told Robyn Freedner-Maguire, that during a shift change, he’d watched parents exchange their infant in the parking lot.
That employer is committed to finding better child care solutions for his employees, said Freedner-Maguire, campaign director with Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide campaign intended to educate the public about early-childhood education.
Freedner-Maguire told the story to participants at a brainstorming session with child-care advocates and a few members of the business community.
Angela Earle Gray, Human Resources Director for Bellows Falls-based Chroma Technology Corp, added that her employee-owned company commits to paying livable wages.
Still, Chroma has lost good employees because staying home with the kids is cheaper than paying for child care, she said.
Speakers noted that businesses face multiple hidden costs around hiring and training when employees leave.
It’s important that in trying to solve the issue of accessing quality child care, small businesses — five or fewer people — don’t feel burdened, said Kate O’Connor, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
Business owners tell her that “the state does not understand what we’re going through,” O’Connor said. So whatever benefits or cost savings exist for helping employees access child care, then businesses need to know what those benefits are.
So what’s the solution? Should businesses open their own day care centers? Include child care along with health care in an employee’s flexible spending account?
Enter the Let’s Grow Kids business breakfast at 118 Elliot Street on Oct. 1.
A dozen people attended the early morning meeting. Two had direct ties to the business community and one had connections to Marlboro College. The college has launched a review panel to explore opening a care center for the children of staff, faculty, and possible community members.
Pick up any of the flyers at the Let’s Grow Kids morning event, and the data in favor of early childhood education is overwhelming.
By the age of three, children have developed 80 percent of their brains, and 700 new neural connections are formed every second. Ninety percent of their brains have developed by age five, according to a pamphlet from the educational campaign group.
Launched last year, Let’s Grow Kids has as its goal raising awareness of the need for quality, affordable child care. It receives funding from The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, The Turrell Fund, and The A.D. Henderson Foundation.
The campaign also seeks information from individuals and businesses about what they need in terms of child care.
Most Vermonters recognize the importance of early child education, said Freedner-Maguire. But, Vermonters possess less understanding of the importance of development for children zero (prenatal care) to age three.
Right now, families are making tough choices around finding their children quality child care, she continued. “We can do better here in Vermont.”
Quality child care fosters learning through reading, play, music, and socializing helps children’s’ brains develop, said the organization. The stronger the foundational brain development, the stronger a child’s potential for future learning, skill-building, and emotional intelligence.
Yet, despite the apparent benefits of early education, approximately half the state’s children are considered not ready for kindergarten, said Let’s Grow Kids.
The state measures “readiness” across five areas: social and emotional development, communication, cognitive development, appearing enthusiastic and interested in learning activities, and wellness.
Numbers become tighter once the discussion turns to working parents affording high-quality childcare.
Almost three-quarters of children under the age of six have parents who work. Some of these parents spend 28 percent to 40 percent of their incomes on childcare, according to Let’s Grow Kids. Some families turn to loved ones like grandparents or friends to provide care.
Paying the price
Margaret Atkinson, executive director of the Windham Child Care Association, said that single women pay as much as 42 percent of their earnings toward child care.
Most women already earn 25 percent less than their male counterparts, she added.
Meanwhile, child care providers also tend to earn low wages, another challenge in keeping quality centers sustainable.
Atkinson added that 41 percent of Windham County providers net less than $20,000 a year. Approximately 35 percent net between $20,000 to $26,000 annually.
These wages are on par with what pet sitters, parking valets, and dry cleaners earn, Atkinson continued.
“Children are not pets,” she said.
These are “proud, hardworking, business owners,” she said. They deserve the job benefits, retirement packages, and vacation time everyone expects.
Many child care providers “subsidize families” by providing care at their own expense, Freedner-Maguire said.
Nationwide, according to speakers at the meeting, most children receive day care at professional centers. Grandparents make up the next largest group of providers followed by other family members, licensed home day care, in-home care such as au pairs or nannies, and finally patching together a network of friends.
Ensuring Vermont children receive quality child care includes supporting employers, parents, and providers.
Another initiative in the state is the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children’s business-supported child care initiative. This program looks to develop child care that’s connected to serving employees of nearby businesses.
Employees “can’t be productive, unstressed workers” if they’re nervous about their children’s care, liaison Susan Elliot said.
How these businesses run the child care will depend on many factors, Elliot said. Each center may operate differently.
Some businesses may open their own centers or collaborate with other businesses. Some might not directly fund the center but provide goods or services. For example, one business involved in a pilot program with Elliot is providing the center meals from its onsite cafe.
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, a parent and former educator, said that the conversation around early child care requires adjusting.
People still hold assumptions around “who needs child care and why,” she said.
One assumption in Windham County is that one working parent can financially support a family while the other parent stays home, Balint said. The wages and cost of living in Windham County don’t support that scenario. Both parents must work.
Schools haven’t caught up with the model of two working parents either, she noted.
“We need to accept where we are,” Balint said. The whole system needs changing.
“So it’s a nut we have to crack,” Balint continued. “Because we desperately need these young families.”