Child care needs to be seen as a necessary part of community infrastructure for greater community and economic development to occur in Southwest Virginia.
In an interview last week, United Way of Southwest Virginia President and CEO Travis Staton contended that localities think about water, natural gas, railroad and interstate access, and broadband to attract new employers and grow existing businesses. However, he said, community leaders hadn’t considered child care. That is, until the pandemic highlighted the importance of schools and child care and this area’s lack of that vital service.
To address the situation, the United Way is launching a two-year pilot program that Staton believes will be a win for employees, employers and localities. The program, the Employer Sponsored Child Care Benefit Program, is designed to particularly return manufacturers to full production and bolster workforce participation.
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The program treats child care like health insurance and similar benefits. Participating Southwest Virginia employers will pay a portion of their employees’ child care expenses, but, during the program’s pilot phase, they won’t pay the full bill. Staton said private foundations, other investment partners, and the commonwealth are helping get the program off the ground.
This month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced more than $10.2 million in Growth and Opportunity for Virginia (GO Virginia) grant awards for 13 projects. Among those was $269,406 for this program.
The governor’s press release noted that the project is expected to “encourage manufacturers to be active participants in the solution.”
Additionally, the release said, “This project will fill or retain 76 jobs and serve 25 organizations….”
The release specifically noted that the grant will serve Smyth and Tazewell counties. However, Staton said it will encompass a wide area that extends from Bluefield to the city of Bristol.
A United Way release noted that Universal Fibers of Bristol was one of the first businesses to join the program.
“When we were first approached by United Way about this, we were all ears,” said Rick Nunley, Universal Fibers human resources director. “We’d lost employees who had been working parents, and we were being impacted by an overall labor shortage that was caused in part by many more people being unable to find affordable child care. Every company now is looking for – or looking to keep – that right associate they want to build a nest with and grow long-term. And, child care is one of the top factors people are considering in deciding whether to get back into the workforce, or considering whether they’re at the right employer. So, we see this as a competitive advantage that gives us a leg up in the ability to have a quality employee choose to be – and stay – with us.”
Lawrence Brothers in Bluefield and Paul’s Fans in Big Rock have also signed on to take part. In Smyth and other counties, Staton said work is still under way to identify pilot partners. He believes it’s key for manufacturers and other employees to get involved. The program, he said, will help them fill vacancies and create a family friendly environment.
The lack of adequate child care and the affordability of care, Staton said, are among the biggest barriers to parents working.
The United Way notes that according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, workforce participation by women declined 7.5% at the start of the pandemic and remains 4% below pre-pandemic levels.
At the same time, the cost of providing childcare has risen at a faster rate than employment, meaning some households have found it more cost-effective to have one parent, usually the mother, provide childcare at home. And, it’s not just women who’ve left the workforce entirely, said Courtney McCowan, manager of Community Outreach and Compliance at Paul’s Fans. “We have wives that are going down to part-time because of child care.” Those hours, McCowan said in a release, are hard to replace.
In Smyth County, the United Way and Chamber of Commerce of Smyth County are working together on the project and to undertake research into the community’s child care situation.
Last week, the chamber sent out a survey regarding child care to gather information about employers’ needs. Part of the letter that accompanied the survey said, “…We know that staffing has never been this difficult. We also know how important it is for your employees to have access to high quality, stable child care services to support your business, working families, and the health of our economy in the region.”
Sarah Gillespie, the chamber’s executive director and a mother, agrees with Staton about the importance of child care. She said, “Access to affordable, high quality childcare affects almost every aspect of life. Having stable, high-quality childcare allows parents to improve their labor productivity and miss fewer work days. This allows for greater economic growth and expansion for business and industry. It also allows parents to peruse additional education and training. For our children, it’s key to early childhood development and kindergarten readiness, which impacts our children for their entire lives.”
As part of this work, Staton said the organizations are working to find ways to increase the availability of child care in the region, including supporting existing providers. Part of the work, he said, is to create more high quality, affordable, child care slots.
Over time, like Gillespie, Staton believes the program will be a win for employers and employees. With increased productivity, he expects that employers and communities will earn back investments that they make in the program.
Staton anticipates a quick start-up for the project. Identifying partners and pilot project sites is under way as the establishment of an employee advisory group to determine program eligibility and guidelines.
“I’d like to see the launch in 60 to 90 days at the latest,” Staton said.
He described the project as a “significant piece of community and economic development.”
GO Virginia board member Jim Dyke agreed. In advocating for passage of the motion to fund the program, Dyke said, “I have always said if I could only invest in one program in education this would be it. This is the beginning of the pipeline. Employers see how important child care is, and this is a great way of getting people back into the workforce, especially women.”
The GO Virginia money won’t be used to pay for childcare costs, but to help “launch, build and establish the program. GO Virginia will fund assessments in 13 communities, and fund efforts to monitor data on performance and effectiveness. The employers will track progress and outcomes of employee retention and satisfaction for participating. GO Virginia will also help fund a United Way of Southwest Virginia shared services effort to help cut child care centers’ costs,” said a United Way release.