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CT companies to lawmakers: Fund child care

Joaquin Freiberg, 5, cheers above the crowd, hoisting a sign that reads, "Teachers help kids play, grow, and learn!"
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Joaquin Freiberg, 5, cheers above the crowd, hoisting a sign that reads, "Teachers help kids play, grow, and learn!"

Connecticut’s top companies are calling on lawmakers to boost social safety net spending as pandemic-induced challenges in finding and securing child care have sapped their workforces and complicated recruitment.

Executives from Bigelow Tea, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Boehringer Ingelheim and Hartford HealthCare testified in support of legislation that would increase state funding for child care and school readiness programs by several thousand dollars per child — an investment they said is vital to Connecticut’s economic health.

“Child care is a critical issue for our employees, and we recognize that access to child care can improve worker productivity, morale, recruitment and retention,” Nancy Di Dia, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Boehringer Ingelheim, wrote in testimony to the Children and Public Health committees last month. “This is a critical moment in time for children, families, and the entire [early-childhood education] sector.”

The pandemic highlighted the need for child care, as many working parents juggled jobs with family responsibilities. Some large employers around the country have invested their own funds in adding or expanding child care benefits, such as on-site day care centers and backup care, in order to retain their workforces and keep staffing levels as steady as possible.

So far this year in Connecticut, more than 124,000 parents of young children said their work has been disrupted by child care issues, according to a U.S. Census survey. Working parents have cut work hours or taken sick days, vacation days and unpaid leave to care for children. Some left jobs or lost jobs due to child care responsibilities. Many said they had to supervise children while also performing job duties.

“Working parents paid an enormous price due to the lockdowns and lack of child care options,” Wyatt Bosworth of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association wrote in his testimony in support of Senate Bill 2, one component of the legislature’s broad push this session to address concerns about children’s mental health and well-being.

“Simply put, with workforce recruitment and retention representing employers’ greatest challenge, it has never been more important to invest in child care and make it easier for employers to retain employees with child care needs,” Bosworth wrote.

Those workforce challenges are exacerbated by the child care industry’s own staff shortages, which have led to fewer open slots for young children during the past two years. More funding could allow for higher pay for child care workers, which advocates say would ease the sector’s workforce challenges.

“If we were paid — if women were paid — a livable wage across the entire sector, you would eliminate the workforce crisis,” Allyx Schiavone, director of the Friends Center for Children in New Haven, told CT Public last week. Schiavone described funding for child care as “a three-pronged workforce initiative,” because it supports working parents, it ensures that early-care and education teachers are paid a livable wage, and it prepares the next-generation workforce. She and other child care providers and advocates are pushing for $700 million in funding for child care to be included in S.B. 2.

The bill’s exact dollar figure has yet to be settled as it goes through the legislative process. And even with the state’s finances bolstered by federal COVID funds and bipartisan agreement on prioritizing children’s health, there’s no guarantee the state’s child care infrastructure will see the windfall that advocates and providers are seeking.

But with the business community largely supportive of the push for child care funding, momentum is building. Bigelow Tea, Electric Boat and Hartford HealthCare executives, who serve together on the Governor’s Workforce Council, said they’ve set “expanding access to affordable and high-quality early childhood education” as one of the group’s main goals.

“When the pandemic closed schools across Connecticut, many of our front line staff were scrambling looking for day care that would keep their children safe as they needed to be at the bedside of our patients,” Hartford HealthCare’s Jeffrey Flaks wrote in his testimony to lawmakers.

Andrew Bond, a vice president with Electric Boat, said the submarine manufacturer’s workforce “has 2,500 dependents between the ages of 0 and 5 and 2,300 dependents between 6 and 12.” And that’s expected to grow as the company undertakes plans for rapid workforce expansion over the next five years, he said. “Access to high quality child care improves recruitment, retention and productivity.”

At times during the pandemic, child care-related staffing challenges meant Bigelow Tea was unable to run all the machines at its Fairfield plant, which slowed down the supply chain for its customers, President and Chief Executive Cynthia Bigelow told legislators. “This too has a business impact that is hard to measure but is very real and tangible and felt every day,” she wrote.

Bigelow Tea has hired many “amazing people” with families, but the lack of access to child care has presented barriers to their continued employment with the company, she said. “They are simply unable to commit to be at work daily. It is unfortunate to see the people who want to work, are willing to work and do a great job for us unable to commit to ongoing employment because of child care struggles.”