BY DEBBIE KITCHIN | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
I spent much of the last 30 years experiencing life as a parent, an employee, and a regional economist. Today, I can add one more perspective to the list: business owner. In 1994, my husband founded InterWorks, LLC, a construction services company that performs as a general contractor and construction manager in commercial and residential remodeling and renovation. I left my job and joined two years later.
Through all these facets of my life and career, a few things have remained constant. One is that workers — whether it was me back in the early 90s or my own employees now — are more productive and happier when they have safe, reliable arrangements for their children while they work. This is especially true in the construction and manufacturing industries, where worker safety and optimal performance require employees to be focused and not distracted by personal stressors.
And yet, too many Oregon workers face significant barriers to this one common, basic necessity. Oregon is one of the least affordable states in the country for child care. The average cost of enrolling a toddler at an Oregon day care center now exceeds the cost of college tuition at our public colleges and universities. In real terms, this pencils out to more than $10,000 a year for a family. Is this really sustainable when more than 80 percent of Oregon parents are working and nearly one-third of our workforce is comprised of parents?
Further, the majority of the 30 occupations expected to see the most growth in the next decade have median incomes of less than $30,000. As child care costs continue to increase, parents’ salaries are not keeping up. Costs for child care rose 7% more than family incomes from 2004-2010. The monthly cost of toddler care has increased 99% since InterWorks launched almost 20 years ago. In the business world, we have to wonder: What is the impact to the state economy when so much of the potential workforce struggles to maintain employment under this steadily increasing financial burden? What is the impact to our local business climate?
Here are a few answers: A national study showed that businesses lost $3 billion due to employee absenteeism related to lack of child care. Here in Oregon, child care supports 8% of the economy — that’s roughly $8.4 billion in income and wages, and $25 billion in revenue to other industries. And yet, the child care infrastructure itself struggles to meet the growing need of our workforce.
When parents cannot consistently afford the payments that keep their children enrolled, then child care businesses can not depend on a steady client base to expand capacity and meet the need for their services. The result? Wait lists at local child care centers can approach two years. In the meantime, what is a parent with an opportunity to enter or reenter the workforce to do?
Over the years, I have seen many working parents find creative solutions to these challenges. Some will alternate shifts so that one parent can always be home to watch the children. But too often this arrangement winds up leaving families exhausted and depleted—parents rarely get to see one another during waking hours, and children lose out on the benefit of time with both parents.
But child care is more than a vital support to working parents. There is a growing movement to recognize that access to stimulating, quality care prepares children for school, enhances their development, and sets them on a path to future success. Business leaders must, therefore, also begin to consider the cost barrier to child care access as a workforce development issue.
As a business owner and a former economist, I know that child care businesses have low profit margins. No one is getting rich from this work, despite the steady increase in costs. There has to be a middle ground where parents can afford child care yet child care providers have the means to run their businesses, pay their teachers, and grow capacity to meet demand.
As members of the business community, we have an obligation to support initiatives that bridge this gap, such as the Employment Related Day Care program, which provides child care subsidies to those working parents who need it most.
Given the importance of child care for Oregon workers, employers, and the economy as a whole, the child care sector will be key to the state’s economic recovery. As employers, we have to ask ourselves: What sacrifices are our employees making just to show up everyday? What worries are keeping them from being their most focused, their most productive, their most thoughtful?
A robust child care industry — in which parents have access to affordable, quality options — supports Oregon workers and businesses, and strengthens our economy.
Debbie Kitchin is the co-owner of InterWorks LLC, a Portland-based construction services company.
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