Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. In this article, the author outlines how child care in the U.S. is among working parents' biggest expenses.
The cost of child care in the United States is high. This is not news. The 2016 Care Index released by the New America Foundation and Care.com shared an increasingly troubling cost profile of child care right now. The national average for at-home care is $28,354 per year, while in-center care is $8,589 per year. Some of the most expensive metro regions included private-sector-rich NYC, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These are the very same cities where employers struggle to recruit and maintain skilled talent.
Here's how Lauren Smith Brody describes the problem in The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby: "Many of the women I interviewed for my book talked about a terrifying moment of new-mom math that they did in their heads: How much of my net salary after taxes will go towards paying for child care? Often there was a very slim margin or none at all…. In that moment, when they're already heading back before a too-short, unpaid maternity leave, before they're emotionally or physically ready, this is a particularly cruel realization."
My work with the It's Working Project reveals a very candid view from the parental perspective. The project has asked hundreds of parents to share their personal experiences of going back to work after baby. These first-person narratives expose not only trends but also consistent concerns and challenges affecting parents as they return to work. Child care and genuine support (or lack thereof) from the workplace are consistently at the top of the list. Support from employers makes or breaks the deal, creating either a manageable new reality or the need for a backup plan (or even an exit).
Some organizations are helping employees make the most of existing, subpar child care realities, or going further and actively helping employees figure out better, more-affordable child care options.
Making the Most of Existing Child Care Realities
Set regular start and end times for meetings. Some organizations have implemented a policy that no meetings will start prior to 9:30 AM or end later than 4:30 PM. This simple move cuts down on the anxiety surrounding timely daycare pick-up and drop-off, and the expense related to daycare overtime charges. When parents aren't worried about running late, they can keep their mental energies focused on the business.
Make schedules predictable. Dina Bakst, founder of New York–based A Better Balance, is an advocate of making schedules predictable and avoiding telling employees at the last minute that they need to stay late, come in early, or travel on short notice. "This can be hugely stressful when you have to arrange daycare," she says. During my recent conversation with Dina, she shared a simple and effective strategy: "Schedule your work in a way that allows your employees to predict when they need to be available."
Offer flexibility. I spoke with BirchBox's VP of People and Culture, Melissa Enbar. She explained how her organization allows employees to set schedules that work for them, by providing flexibility about the hours they work and the location they work from. Investing in conference room technology "so you can dial in from anywhere and still feel like you are in the room with your colleagues" is an important enabler of flexible work, she says. "We ask that new parents put their availability (time in and out) onto their calendars and [that] colleagues schedule meetings around their needs," she continues. "We are respectful of their set work hours, and they always have the option to dial in to a meeting that may be earlier or later than usual."
Help Employees Figure Out Better Child Care Options
Offer access to flexible spending accounts, and educate employees on how to use them. FSA accounts are a generous benefit. But it takes more than just access to this type of pre-tax account to create the highest level of benefit for new parents. As Enbar explained, "Most companies offer the option for child care Flex Spending Accounts to cover child care costs pre-tax. We spend the time to educate employees during onboarding or after a life change event so they understand how to use these accounts for significant savings." On a larger scale, a Bank of America spokesperson shared in recent emails how the bank offers a full range of financial counseling services with a focus on child-related expenses that are both continuous and overwhelming to parents. The Benefits Education & Planning Center is staffed with licensed counselors who specialize in Bank of America's benefits programs, products, and employee discounts. They can offer guidance on the costs of child care, budgeting for expenses, and FSAs, among other topics. The service is confidential and available at no cost to employees.
Help with back-up care. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart. Sometimes that's due to a sick child, or a sick child care provider. Sometimes, work travel produces the need for more or different coverage. This is where back-up care comes in. Many employers offer back-up care, which comes in many shapes and sizes. According to Jon, an employee of Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, the institution offers a reduced rate for six days of emergency care at home through Care.com, plus access to a backup child care center. This service can be activated with as little as two hours' notice. Talk about crisis averted!
Offer on-site care. While this is not the most inexpensive benefit, having an on-site family center addresses many working-parent child care concerns and expresses a genuine interest in supporting parents in the workplace. At Campbell's Soup, in addition to a 10-week, gender-blind parental leave policy and more than 12 family lounges at company headquarters, the company offers a Family Center at its headquarters in Camden, N.J., for infants through kindergarten. In my recent correspondence with Kerrin Donnelly, Director of Global Integrated Facilities, I learned, "This is subsidized, and we provide food, with a focus on healthy, nutritious options. Backup care is also available at the Family Center."
Child care can be expensive and hard for working parents to navigate, even in the best of circumstances. Smart, compassionate companies help their employees through this minefield, recognizing that it could be the benefit that matters most for employee retention. Policies and programs can help with the practicalities of care and to express an authentic desire to do well by your firm's working parents.
Julia Beck is the founder of the It's Working Project and Forty Weeks. Ms. Beck, a passionate strategist, storyteller, ideator & connector is based in Washington, D.C. She's on Twitter @TheJuliaBeck.