Ruger Firearms in Newport has been fortunate to fill more than 100 jobs in the last year through hiring events and on-the-spot offers. But human resources director Joseph Blair said getting there has been tough because about 40 great candidates have turned down offers after realizing child care would be near impossible to find.
Keeping staff hasn’t been easy either, Blair said, even with benefits like flexible shifts and paid time off for pandemic-related challenges. Employees are increasingly relying on family and friends for child care; some couples who once worked the same shift are now working back-to-back shifts to cover gaps; and others are calling out for the day.
The company’s decision before the pandemic to prioritize employee wellness has been crucial, Blair said.
“It’s not, ‘three strikes and you’re out,’” Blair said. “Find out what’s going on. This is out of the norm from a manufacturing leader role, but if you have an associate come in who isn’t worried about their kids, or their kids’ safety, they are going to be that much more productive for you. (Our staff) are really enabled to show support of other associates.”
The dearth of affordable, quality child care in New Hampshire has long been well understood by policymakers and parents who need it. The pandemic has made equally clear why that shortage should matter to everyone else, too.
Parents unable to find or afford child care have abandoned the workforce, leaving employers across all sectors desperate for staff. Some, including child care providers, have had to limit hours or close altogether. Others, facing soaring operating costs, are wondering how long they can afford the salaries they increased to lure job seekers.
The solution is less obvious.
There’s a lot of hope riding on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which includes extended child care tax credits; a cap of 7 percent of income on child care costs for low-wage earners; free pre-K for kids ages 3 and 4; and money to increase salaries for child care workers and the number of providers.
But employers, municipal leaders, child care policy experts, parents, and child care providers say that alone isn’t a reliable, long-term solution. A search for that long-term solution prompted Vital Communities, a nonprofit in the Upper Valley, to host a two-day child care symposium for policymakers, lawmakers, employers, child care providers, and parents last month.
Attendees heard about the city of Lebanon’s new child care stipends for employees; a retirement community’s on-site, affordable child care for employees’ children; a company’s paid time off for COVID-19-related issues, including child care gaps; and financial counseling and teacher credentialing programs for struggling child care centers.
The child care crisis is a new focus area for Vital Communities, whose mission is fostering civic, environmental, and economic vitality. They took it on at the request of the area’s municipal, business, and economic development leaders, said Executive Director Sarah Jackson. “Each of these groups are worried about how the lack of high-quality, affordable child care is compromising the economic vitality of the region,” she said.
This broadened awareness is the pandemic’s one positive for Jenn Parker, owner of Creative Kids Adventures in Grantham, which cares for children from birth to age 12. She’s had to limit her hours due to hiring challenges and will have to eliminate 10 spots if she loses one more teacher.
“I do think there are positive things coming down the road,” she said. “I see the government recognizing the importance of child care. I believe we are getting the recognition … that this is an essential service.”
A twofold challengeThe pandemic did not create the state’s child care problem, but it did exacerbate it.
Prior to COVID-19, there was a 60 percent gap between the 34,000 licensed child care spots available for children under 6 and the number needed, according to a 2021 study of workforce constraints commissioned by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Even though the number of providers has dropped 1 percent since then, the number of child care spots licensed by the state has actually grown by 17 percent, to 39,768, according to a new analysis by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
However, Jess Carson, a research assistant professor with the Carsey School, said the numbers may not be a true reflection of child care availability because they do not reflect staff shortages or other issues that may be preventing providers from filling all their spots. And, the state does not distinguish between spots open to young children and school-age children, who do not need child care during the standard workday.
“Thus, this analysis represents the high end of licensed care capacity; care may be open to fewer children at any given time,” Carson said in an email.
Rebecca Owens and her husband, who live in Lebanon, began looking for child care before their son was born this fall. Like a lot of first-time parents, Owens was surprised to discover some centers didn’t take infants and others had waiting lists of 10 children or more. One site had 80 people waiting for an opening. Even the nannies Owens contacted were already talking with 10 other families.
Owens was able to return to her job as the associate planner for the city of Lebanon last month by cobbling together three days of care from a licensed private provider who takes kids into her home and a day of help from her mother-in-law. Owens had the fifth day covered until she learned some staff at that site were not vaccinated and now is looking for another option.
The logistical challenge of securing child care is only one of two hurdles. Cost is the other.
If Owens’s private provider eventually has the room to take her son five days a week, it would cost the couple $20,000 a year, Owens said. That’s less than some other options in the area, but enough to leave some families choosing between a car and child care.
“Even on the affordable side, it’s not super affordable,” she said.
According to a 2021 study, annual child care costs in New Hampshire in 2019 averaged $13,000 for an infant and $23,650 for an infant and older child.
Jamie Clavet and Justin Limberger of Barrington pay $2,100 a month – about $25,000 annually – for three days of child care for their children, ages 4 and 2. The cost was enough to make them think hard about enrolling the younger child a year ago.
“It’s like we are paying our mortgage three times over,” Clavet said.
The couple refinanced their home to make it work and rely on Limberger’s parents to help one day. Clavet, who does marketing for the theater department at the University of New Hampshire, works from home on Fridays.
“The weight of (the cost) is really heavy, but I see how much my children have grown and learned through the hands of other people,” Clavet said. “It makes it worth the sacrifice, however, it would be so much better if the sacrifice wasn’t so great.”
Vishal Komal and Pooja Attri of Concord did a lot of math after their baby, Vihaan, arrived nearly two years ago. Child care would cost them $400 to $500 a week, about 60 percent of Komal’s salary working in a school cafeteria. It was beyond their reach.
Instead, they work opposite shifts, six days a week. The schedule prevents them from spending much time together as a family because they even work opposite days on the weekend.
“It is especially hard for my son,” Komal said. “Until we find less expensive child care, we will do this. I’m not saying child care should be free, but it should be affordable to everyone. The only thing we want is for him to have a better life.”
Creative solutionsThe New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute identified the limited availability of child care as one of the key challenges to the state’s recovery from the pandemic in a September policy brief. At last month’s symposium, several employers and others shared how they’ve responded.
The Early Care and Education Association, a support network for child care providers in the Upper Valley, saw providers struggling financially during pandemic shutdowns, stretching themselves thin meeting safety protocols, and frantically trying to hire when they were able to reopen.
The association began several initiatives, including financial counseling for providers and a coaching program to help their entry-level child care staff earn a child development associate credential. With that, they could assume lead teaching jobs, positions that can be a challenge to fill.
Kendal at Hanover, a 65-acre retirement community along the Connecticut River, has offered on-site child care, including meals, to its staff since it opened 30 years ago. Employees pay no more than 12 percent of their salary on care, but many pay less depending on what they earn.
To do it, the organization pulls from a dedicated fund created years ago and relies on income from the retirement community to subsidize the child care program, which runs an annual deficit of $30,000, David Watts, director of human services, said. The child care center is such a priority, the company recently increased teacher wages to $20 to $22 an hour.
In an effort to recruit and retain staff, the city of Lebanon asked employees to identify the challenges of holding a job. Child care was a big one, said city manager Shaun Mulholland. The city responded by offering staff the flexibility to work remotely and adjust schedules to work around a child care crisis. A few have brought a child to work to cover a short one- or two-hour gap in care.
Starting next month, the city will also offer families up to $2,500 toward child care costs, Mulholland said.
“It’s not, obviously, the solution, but it is part of a solution,” Mulholland said. “It doesn’t deal with the capacity issue, but what it does do is help to reduce some of that cost to employees.”
At Ruger, part-time employees can set their own schedule, allowing them to work around child care needs. Full-time employees received two weeks of paid COVID-19 leave when they missed work for pandemic-related issues, including child care needs. This year, they received one week.
Blair, Ruger’s human resources director, is also working with the town of Newport to open a community child care center that offers early morning and overnight shifts, in addition to standard daytime hours.
Amy Brooks, the executive director of the Early Care and Education Association, sees these specific benefits as a reason to hope.
“It is wonderful that nearly all industries are now understanding that access to high-quality, affordable child care is key to reopening the economy,” she said.