Child care challenges an underlying impact in workforce crisis

Updated: Jun. 29, 2022 at 11:59 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - ”I’ve had employers over the years tell me... ‘Our business isn’t child care.’ And I want to say ‘you’re wrong.’ Your business has to be child care or your business is going to fail.”

That is what Gordon Crow of the Central Wisconsin Alliance for Economic Development said as he was moderating a panel of area chamber of commerce leaders at the beginning of June; the theme centered on a workforce crisis caused by a variety of factors. The conversation at the Central to Success Workforce Solutions Summit in Rothschild in a room filled with area business and organizational leaders is one of several that have happened over the last few months. They are a result of the pandemic exacerbating problems with child care, but the issues of a lack of accessible, affordable, quality care have been going on for decades.

Many people working in the early childhood education field see themselves as the workforce behind the workforce. That industry has seen staffing shortages itself as classrooms or entire centers or family care providers close, with about a quarter of providers leaving the field over the last 15 years. This leaves parents in a pickle trying to find care, with some parents having to lower their standards of the quality of care just so they can go to work or suffer lost income by leaving the workforce entirely.

At least half of the parents 7 Investigates was in contact with indicated that they considered leaving the workforce to stay home due to the difficulties of child care. The majority of those who considered staying home ultimately did.

Nuanced challenges

Nicki Woitula is the mother of two children under the age of 5 in Stevens Point. She and her husband were able to find child care for their older daughter in Stevens Point, but not for their infant son. Her husband works as a manager at a manufacturing company in Mosinee. He has structured hours and needs to be available at the facility, though can take some work calls from home when needed. Woitula is going to school part-time and works as a youth treatment case manager in Wausau but has to travel around Marathon County to see kids in person. However, she has more flexible hours and has to make a minimum of 40 hours of work a week somehow. So, she stays home with her son until her husband is able to take over.

“That’s kind of been our normal lately, is just having to make whatever work that we can and try to get our jobs like our companies that we work for to be understanding,” Woitula said. “That’s been really difficult because it’s like, I mean they still expect you to work and meet all of these certain measures, or you know, whatever it is that you’re tasked to do, and when you’re having to like completely modify your schedule it kind of makes it difficult.”

She can do some work from home while she cares for her son, but she explained it is nearly impossible with a 10-month-old.

“I mean, I can barely get my dishes done without him. You know, being on my back or climbing up me right? So I mean, if I can barely get my house done, it’s like work is definitely not getting done.” She explained further as her son was crying, “It’s really distracting to try to like talk to a teenager like over the computer with a crying child like that’s not realistic at all.”

So, she works in the evenings and in the middle of the night when she needs, which is tough on her overall well-being.

“They’re only little for so long and so, you know, when you come home you want to be able to do dinner and do the family stuff and, then it’s like once they go to bed It’s like ‘OK, well now I have to get back to doing work or get back to doing school,’ and so that has definitely been a challenge.”

She has considered a variety of options, like potentially going part-time so she can focus more on her children and her continuing education, saying the rate her and her husband have been going has been difficult and filled with sacrifices. She understands the needs of her employer, her teachers, her children, and her own human needs, but it is a tough balance.

“We want to go and go to work and be successful professionals, but this child care situation that it’s out of our control makes it really difficult for us to be successful professionals.”

Kelly Hammond in Stevens Point has similar, yet different challenges. Her husband works as a physical therapist and has particular hours he has to be at work and has to be there, physically in person. She works part-time as a healthy communities coordinator; that is by design because she said her career is important to her, she does not want to stay home full-time, but she also wants to be able to have full days with her two daughters who are not in school yet.

“I do think having kids and being a parent makes you in a lot of ways a better employee. You understand what people are going through in the community. You can relate better; you’re really good (at) time management. You’re good at being flexible and adaptable, and it’s kind of that blurred line between home and work life.”

Finding care part-time is more difficult than full-time care as care providers have to figure out how to fill the times those part-time children are not there or they lose income. So, she has been managing an inadequate amount of child care since her daughters were born, often causing her to piecemeal care week-to-week. Her employer is understanding and has been flexible, but the lack of care impacts her work.

“That’s not fair to my employer, right? Like, that’s not fair that I’m taking time out of my workday to make phone calls or you’re taking the brain space that I should be focused on projects,” she acknowledged.

She has also dealt with a wide range in the quality of care. She described a sense of anxiety when she switched to a new provider.

“My girls are everything to me and to know that they’re safe during the day while I’m at work, that’s everything. How could I focus if I didn’t know that they were safe?”

Attracting, retaining, and relating

Molly Adzic is the employee resource director for Marathon County and sees her struggles with...
Molly Adzic is the employee resource director for Marathon County and sees her struggles with child care reflected in the people she employs and attempts to hire.(WSAW Emily Davies)

Molly Adzic experiences these same issues on a personal and professional level. For several months following the end of her and her husband’s parental leave, they did not have child care for their son. They both work jobs where they can sometimes work remotely, finish work overnight, and flex their schedules to accommodate in-person meetings, but it was overwhelming and destructive to their overall health.

“We were running out of flexibility at that point.”

They were eventually able to secure care, though they still have to modify work schedules to accommodate the hours of their care provider. Adzic leaves work early to pick her son up and takes care of him during that time until she puts him to bed when she can continue her work. She and her husband flip duties when they have to accommodate evening meetings.

“I never would have imagined that it would have taken so long been so difficult and been so, you know, heartbreaking, because we didn’t want to consider, you know, unsafe options. We didn’t want to lose our jobs. I at one point really did start to contemplate the true reality of having to quit my job, which would have been just devastating, I mean, financially and otherwise, though. I care about my job passionate about what I do.”

Adzic and her husband work for Marathon County. She is the employee resources director in charge of hiring staff for all county positions. She sees her experience reflected back in both her current employees and the people she is trying to hire.

“I have an employee right now who is meant to return from a child rearing leave and has not secured care. And is really struggling with the fact that she’s not going to be able to return to work, and or may not be able to return to work, at least not in the time frame that she had initially anticipated and hoped for. And it’s really devastating.”

She said there are several employees she has seen leave due to the problem. As for attracting new talent, she said she cannot quantify how many people are not applying due to child care issues, but she sees plenty who have had to modify during their hiring process.

“We’ve had people who have applied and then ultimately not been able to start because they were applying for jobs thinking they, you know, they would get one. They got one (job) thinking that they would be able to secure childcare, weren’t able to secure childcare, weren’t able to start.”

She said while they try to be flexible, and create hybrid situations where needed and when they can, but the county employs a lot of people who have to physically show up for work.

“You need a corrections officer to be in the jail. You need a 911 dispatcher to be sitting there with the equipment to take your call and get you the emergency response that you need. We need people to plow our highways. We, you know, we need people to patrol and care for our parks and those things can’t be done from home, and they can’t be done in the middle of the night like (how) sometimes I do my work.”

A disproportionate burden

Molly Adzic is the employee resource director for Marathon County and sees her struggles with...
Molly Adzic is the employee resource director for Marathon County and sees her struggles with child care reflected in the people she employs and attempts to hire.(WSAW Emily Davies)

“When forced into those decisions, we know it has had a disproportionate impact on women,” Sec. Emilie Amundson with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families said at a meeting in Wausau earlier this month announcing child care funding awards.

Along with anecdotal evidence, there is data to back that statement up. A spring report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows mothers with children under the age of 18 participate in the workforce about 20% less than fathers.

The labor force participation rate for all mothers with children under age 18 was 71.2 percent...
The labor force participation rate for all mothers with children under age 18 was 71.2 percent in 2021, unchanged from 2020 but down from 72.3 percent in 2019. The participation rate for fathers with children under age 18, at 92.5 percent in 2021, was little changed from 2020 (92.3 percent) but down from 2019 (93.3 percent). Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Labor force participation of mothers and fathers little changed in 2021, remains lower than in 2019 at of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily)

The participation rate is higher than it was in the 1960s, however, in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the rate of women’s participation in the workforce fell to the lowest rate since 1987. It increased from that low in 2021, but not to the level seen in 2019.

When separating the age range of the children, USBLS data show mothers whose youngest child was under the age of 6 “remained less likely to participate in the labor force,” compared to mothers with older children. The participation rate of fathers with children in that younger age set increased from 2020 to 2021 and remains higher than fathers with older children.

Mothers whose youngest child was under age 6 remained less likely to participate in the labor...
Mothers whose youngest child was under age 6 remained less likely to participate in the labor force in 2021 than mothers whose youngest child was ages 6 to 17. By contrast, fathers with younger children were more likely to participate in the labor force than those with older children. The participation rate for fathers of younger children increased by 0.5 percentage point from 2020 to 93.9 percent in 2021. However, participation among fathers of older children (91.5 percent) and mothers of younger and older children (65.6 percent and 75.5 percent, respectively) showed little change from 2020. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Labor force participation of mothers and fathers little changed in 2021, remains lower than in 2019 at of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily)

As laid out in personal experiences and from provider perspectives, parents who continue to participate in the workforce with inadequate child care often have the quality of their work impacted.

“It is a choice to work and it’s oftentimes not an option or even desire for someone (to) just stay home,” Hammond stated. “I love my job and I love my children, and I think that it’s I think it’s necessary that our childcare reflects the modern family.”

“What it’s doing is it’s forcing people to make a really difficult choice if they’re qualified and otherwise available to enter the workforce or re-enter the workforce, they’re having to choose between doing so or staying home (and) providing care for their kids,” Lance Leonard, Marathon County Administrator said alongside Liz Brodek, the development director for the city of Wausau.

They represent what many community leaders and employers are beginning to understand: child care is complex; the issues around it are not simple to solve, and it impacts people’s ability to work.

“We need to start seeing this as a community problem and I think when we view it that way, we also realize that everybody has a stake, in solving it,” Brodek urged.

There is a learning curve, as professionals in the child care field see and as employees try to explain to their employers.

“It’s the people who don’t have children and don’t understand, or the bosses of the world and like can’t you just like drop your kid off at childcare. Or you know, they just don’t understand it because they either don’t have kids or when they grew up, their wives or husbands stayed home, like it’s a different world,” Stephanie Daniels, the director of the Aspirus Weston YMCA urged.

She added the career of early childhood education has not been taken seriously as a profession either by society, which adds to misunderstandings.

“It’s very important, if not the most important job.”

Over the last three months alone, several large community conversations gathering chambers of commerce leaders, employers, parents, child care providers, and advocates to begin working on finding solutions to the layers of problems in the industry from the northern through the southern parts of Wisconsin’s north-central region. The comments, stories, and points made are meant to bring everyone to understand the wide variety of perspectives.

“We need to solve the issues that exist for all people because regardless of sector manufacturing, medical, agricultural, government, you name it, we all have unique challenges that are going to need to have unique solutions,” Leonard said.

“I literally watch all of my friends who now have children 6 and under discuss who’s getting pregnant when so they could continue with their child care facilities,” a woman who works in health care described at the Grow North Child Care Conversation in April. When children are born impacts when spots are available at child care facilities. She continued that one of the nurses “accidentally got pregnant early” which caused her children to have to move because there was not a spot available for an infant.

“It’s an extreme childcare desert and all of our colleagues over in Minocqua; they can’t work. I mean, we had urgent care providers leave because there’s nowhere to send their kids and they are constantly working,” added a doctor in the same event.

She also described an incident she had with her child that was traumatizing to her. Her child was not breathing while at child care. She was too far away to get to him while working in Merrill, where there is an extreme lack of child care options. She said her husband, a logger, was able to get to him because he happened to be in the area.

“Now when I talk to other health care providers and like or healthcare places to work, I’m like ‘OK, I have to be within X amount of minutes from getting here to my kid.’”

Another point made at in that conversation was aimed at employers who do not have a workforce that primarily is made up of parents with young children.

“They’re grandmas, they’re grandpas and they stay-- they retire early, so that way they can stay home and watch the grandkids while Mom and dad go to work,” Bob Pekol, the business childcare advocate for Family & Childcare Resources of N.E.W. said in his presentation. “And that’s something that you are losing is, you’re losing that senior level of experience within that organization, which is unfortunate.”

In Adams County, which has wealth and resources on the northern and southern ends of the county with fewer resources and higher rates of poverty in the middle, Tina Smith, a child welfare worker there said in the child care grant awards presentation and discussion in Wausau this month that parents are out of options and desperate.

“You know, child protection gets a lot involved, which is the field that I work in. A lot of reports about people leaving their children home alone or with inappropriate people because they have no option while going to work.”

“There’s no silver bullet here. Everybody in this room needs to be part of the solution,” Dave Eckmann, the president and CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce said to a full hall during the workforce summit.

That is beginning to happen. The state has poured money from the federal government into opportunities to allow businesses, governments, and nonprofits to come together to hypothesize solutions and test them out to begin chipping away at the web of issues. Brief details about those awards and who received them can be found here.

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