by Marie Barry, RWHC Director of Community & Economic Development
As Wisconsin and the nation continues to face record low unemployment and challenges filling workforce vacancies, many businesses and government sectors are exploring strategies to engage those who are currently out of the labor force due to barriers to employment. Many barriers exist: prior involvement in the justice system, unreliable or no transportation, mismatched skills or credentials, lack of accommodations for various disabilities, challenges with substance use, limited English proficiency, etc. However, one barrier has been rising to the top in recent conversations with healthcare organizations and other businesses: childcare.
Statistically speaking, the healthcare workforce is likely to be disproportionately impacted by childcare challenges due to the concentration of females in the workforce. According to the US Census Bureau, women hold 76% of all healthcare jobs. Women account for more than 85% of registered nurses. Prior to the pandemic, research revealed that women with young children preferred public to private sector employment due to the associated benefits and schedule stability (Conroy, 2019). Post-pandemic, additional evidence shows that childcare is more likely to influence a woman’s employment decision than a man’s. For example, 51% of women indicated the cost of childcare was a consideration for their career compared to only 34% of men (Conroy & Runge, 2020).
Women have been a major part of the US workforce for decades and children attending childcare programs is not a new phenomenon. So why is there now an increased focus on the importance of high-quality, affordable, accessible childcare amongst both public and private sectors?
To be blunt, the childcare business model is broken. The average annual cost of infant care in Wisconsin is $12,567. Meanwhile, the median wage of a childcare worker in Wisconsin ranges from $11 to $13 an hour. In a more human context, during last week’s Raising Wisconsin Advocacy Day at the Wisconsin State Capitol, many childcare workers shared their firsthand stories of relying on Medicaid, food pantries, FoodShare, and Wisconsin Shares (our state’s childcare subsidy program) to care for their own families due to the critically low wages their sector pays. In summary, parents cannot afford to pay more to support childcare programs and childcare programs are severely struggling to balance their budgets and retain educated, compassionate staff.
So what is the solution? Injecting additional funding streamssuch as financial support from businesses, philanthropy or the public sector has the ability to stabilize and sustain the childcare system. RWHC Eye On Health, 4/13/23
Given today’s tense political environment, particularly in Wisconsin, when it comes to any sort of public benefit program, how do we have the conversation about childcare with our elected officials without immediately disenfranchising those who lean more conservative? A few solutions have risen to the top:
- Reframe childcare as a business issue. For far too, long prior to the pandemic, there was no basic understanding of how childcare is infrastructure for employment. Childcare arrangements and challenges were dealt with silently as a “women’s issue” or a “family issue”. One silver lining of the pandemic was greater visibility of the linkage between childcare and a parent’s ability to work. Explaining childcare as an economic development issue is a helpful reframing that interests more legislators in the conversations.
- Utilize trusted local messengers. Statewide association leaders pushing their organization’s issue of the day is nothing new for elected officials. Having a trusted, local leader that is a constituent contact them to personally share how childcare has affected their business is novel and garners attention.
- Share the data. We have a mountain of research and proof that we do not have enough childcare, it is too expensive, and the system is not sustaining but collapsing. The facts are on our side and communicating them in a non-emotional, business-like manner is helpful.
- Share the burden. Neither families nor businesses expect government to take over and single handedly solve childcare challenges. However, while families and businesses do their part to also support innovative local solutions, diversified funding for childcare, that includes government funding, is one of the only long term solutions to stop the bleeding and move towards a sustainable childcare ecosystem in Wisconsin.
Many RWHC hospitals are experiencing childcare issues daily in their facilities. One hospital had the only licensed childcare facility in their community close mid-2020 and 26 families they employed were notified they needed to find new care. Another hospital has a group center that holds 50% of their community’s licensed childcare capacity slated to close in October with no current solution for the families who will be affected. A hospital lost recruited physicians due to the lack of available childcare near their facility. These are not theoretical challenges; they are being lived out by hospitals daily now.
Given our current workforce challenges–record low unemployment, impending retirements of the baby boomers coupled with their increased healthcare utilization, pandemic-fueled burnout, etc.–we no longer have the novelty of picking and choosing from a large pool of available workers. The tables have turned and employers are instead considering how they can outreach to and support disconnected workers in order to fill critical staff vacancies. Helping current and prospective employees overcome childcare challenges is one vital strategy to retain and recruit the healthcare workforce.