MOUNT VERNON — The child care shortage, how it impacts businesses and workers, and strategies to accommodate working parents were discussed at a business forum Thursday morning.
The forum was hosted at Skagit Valley College by the college, United Way of Skagit County, the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC) and other organizations.
Rae Larson with Child Care Aware of Northwest Washington presented a May report that found 58% of children with parents who work full time in Skagit County don’t have access to licensed child care. Child care availability fell by 6 percent from 2013 to 2018, the report states.
In most Skagit County zip codes, there are four children with working parents for every one child care slot, according to the report.
The shortage is greater in Anacortes, Concrete and Bow, the report states, and there is a two-year waitlist at the YMCA’s Anacortes Early Learning Center.
Additionally, Washington has the third-most expensive home-based child care in the nation, according to the report.
“It’s more expensive to put a child or infant in child care than it is to go to college,” Larson said.
Lack of quality child care impacts cognitive, emotional and social development critical during the first years, she said.
EDASC CEO John Sternlicht said there are economic benefits for companies that can provide child care.
A recent survey of Skagit County employers found that 92% of respondents faced child care related challenges that negatively impacted employees’ work performance. Eighty-one percent reported employee absences and 70% reported tardiness.
Respondents include 27 businesses ranging in size from five to more than 250 employees.
In a response to a question about family-friendly policies at their companies, none of the businesses reported having onsite child care. Nearly 60% reported allowing flexible work schedules, and some have implemented baby-at-work policies and breastfeeding rooms.
Ted Brockmann, superintendent and CFO of United General District 304, said the district is starting a program for employees who are new parents or primary caregivers to bring their infants to work until the age of 6 months.
“It’s really hard for them to decide and know if they should leave their child (in the first six months),” he said.
Brockmann said the district has found other alternatives to child care, including options for employees to telecommute and to use a designated quiet room for breastfeeding.
Carolyn Tucker, executive director of human resources at Skagit Valley College, said working parents stand to benefit from the state’s new paid family and medical leave program, which goes into effect in 2020.
At Shell Puget Sound Refinery, the company provides paid leave for new parents, said refinery business manager Sara Crist. The challenge is reducing the stigma of taking time off.
“If people don’t feel free to take those policies up, it can be really scary,” she said.
Sternlicht said it’s important to remember that child care is a family issue, not a women’s issue.
“I have a level of concern about employers that employ entirely men that think this is not an issue for them,” he said.
Anacortes City Councilman Eric Johnson asked what it would take for businesses or organizations to band together to start a child care program.
Larson said that a combination of public and private funding is the best route.
The state Legislature included more money for reimbursements paid to child care providers in the 2019-2020 budget, according to the report. Still, a further increase is needed to improve child care access for working families, the report found.