Alesha Rodriguez is getting a year of free child care for her 3-year-old son, thanks to a partnership between the state government and her employer, Fitchburg Farms garden center.
She’s one of hundreds of workers across the state who have qualified for the Department of Children and Families’ Partner Up! program. Launched in February and paid for with one-time funds, the program picks up the rest of the cost of care for employees at companies that are willing to chip in at least 25% of the cost.
“Essentially it ends up being a $1,000 raise,” said Rodriguez, a mother of three who’s managed the business for a year and a half. “The opportunities that that allows for my family is just amazing.”
Before starting the job last March, she hadn’t had a full-time job since quitting her job in e-commerce six years earlier. At that job, the high cost of child care for two kids left her with little take-home pay. “It didn’t make sense to make $40 to have somebody else raise my kids,” Rodriguez said.
So when her son’s daycare encouraged her this spring to ask her employer to apply to the program, she leapt at the chance. So did her boss, Fitchburg Farms owner Mike Nauta.
“It took approximately five minutes,” Rodriguez said when asked how she’d convinced him to participate. “He was like, ‘It’s a no brainer. It’s an easy way to reward you for your work without affecting a small business.’”
The program offered a way “to keep and attract good talent,” Nauta said. “It’s just hard to get employees nowadays, and it’s been a huge blessing.”
As a manager, Rodriguez knows how much the company loses when a seasoned employee leaves, and how hard it can be to find workers for the day shift, when the greenhouse’s many high school workers are in class. Some corporate businesses can offer impressive benefits like several months of parental leave, she said, but a small business like Fitchburg Farms – with just six full-time staff – can’t afford raises, health insurance or matching contributions for the new 401(k) plan Rodriguez initiated for employees.
“This is something we can offer, even as the small mom-and-pop plant place,” said Rodriguez, who used some of the money she’s saved on child care to take her family on a one-week vacation to Door County this summer.
The only employee with young children, Rodriguez is the only one participating in the program. A former coworker, a single mom, would have qualified too, but she quit before the grant period began in August. Rodriguez has a friend who currently stays home with her two kids in order to avoid paying for child care. She’d love for her friend to apply, but the company only receives enough grant funding for Rodriguez.
Still, Rodriguez hopes the fact that her workplace is trying this out — and covering half the cost itself — shows her coworkers that the company takes care of its workers.
That’s proven true at other participating workplaces, said Emilie Amundson, secretary of the Department of Children and Families. On Thursday, she visited Stevens Point manufacturing company Gamber-Johnson, which is splitting the cost of child care for 15 of its employees with the state. Leaders there told her they hadn’t expected to see such a “morale boost” among other employees when they learned that coworkers they cared about were getting help.
Testing a new model
It’s uncommon for Wisconsin employers to help their workers pay for child care, but the Partner Up! program was designed to test a new way for the state to encourage them to do so. A 2021 DCF survey found that while 64% of business owners and 86% of employees believe it’s important for businesses to support child care for their employees, just 10% offer child care subsidies.
In September, the Goodman Community Center in Madison announced that it would make its preschool and 4K programs, as well as its after-school and summer programs for school-age children, free for all of its employees. The move, designed to attract and retain working parents, was funded through the organization’s operating budget, not a grant.
“Families are facing tough times right now, and our staff aren’t immune,” Goodman Center CEO Letesha Nelson said in a news release. “This will be a big financial help to our employees who are parents.”
To date, the Partner Up! program has completed contracts with more than 155 employers, who jointly are covering the cost of care for more than 780 children. Additional contracts are currently being negotiated with the latest round of grant applicants. The agency has only been able to fund about half of the applications it received, and some employers have received funding for fewer child care slots than initially requested.
About half of the funded applications were from child care providers seeking to provide free care for their own employees’ kids. That includes Trasnos Child Care Center, the Oregon daycare Rodriguez’ son attends. On average, child care workers in Wisconsin earn $10 to $13 an hour. Notably, the program pays child care providers what the agency calls “the true cost of care,” a rate higher than what strapped families could typically afford.
Of the contracts completed so far, businesses have committed more than $3.6 million to cover child care costs, while DCF is picking up the tab for more than $9 million.
Program’s future unclear
The last full-year contracts started on Oct. 1, though the agency is continuing to approve contracts for shorter durations. The agency recently received a $15 million grant, a small portion of which it plans to use to extend the Partner Up! program, Amundson said. The agency did not immediately respond to a follow-up request for further details.
For the program to continue after that, state legislators would need to allocate new funding in the next budget.
“It’s a win-win-win for parents, businesses and providers alike,“ Amundson said. “We’re hoping that that really compels some of our more conservative legislative members to give this program a shot. I feel like it checks all the boxes.”
Amundson, who has been visiting participating workplaces across the state to talk with grant recipients about their child care challenges, spoke with Rodriguez Friday morning at Fitchburg Farms’ greenhouse while staff tended to the houseplants and flower flats nearby.
With the funding only guaranteed for a year, Amundson asked, would Rodriguez still benefit if the state and her employer paid a smaller part of the cost, and she paid the rest? It’s one option the secretary is considering as she prepares to negotiate what she hopes could be a long-term version of the pilot program.
Rodriguez didn’t hesitate.
“In the past year, we’ve been paying the full amount,” Rodriguez said, referring to the $1,000 or more of monthly child care bills. With a mortgage and three kids to take care of, any level of help means more leftover to cover other expenses, like for her daughter, who’d like to become a Girl Scout.
“Any extra breathing space, especially as my kids get older, is phenomenal,” Rodriguez said. If she, her employer and the state split the cost evenly, for example, “that still opens up so much more funds that I can (use) to give my kids the full experience of life.”
If such a change meant more workers could qualify, “that’s even better,” she said. “I want the greater good. That’s what feels good to me: How many people can we get to help?”