Employers Consider Child Care Subsidies

By Kylie Ora Lobell September 22, 2020
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Employers Consider Child Care Subsidies

​Working parents have borne the brunt of the pandemic's impact on employees, as many must juggle their job responsibilities with overseeing their children's remote educations and overall well-being while quarantined. Some have had no choice but to quit their jobs or decided not to seek new employment when their jobs were eliminated due to the downturn, so that they could focus on caring for their kids. 

In fact, an August survey by Care@Work of 1,000 working parents with children under the age of 15 showed that 73 percent were considering making major changes at work, such as revising their schedules (44 percent), looking for a different job (21 percent) or leaving the workforce entirely (15 percent).

One approach that is gaining steam among employers seeking to help employees with children is to provide child care subsidies. These typically are employer-provided spending accounts or bonuses designed to help cover the costs, in full or partially, of day care and pandemic-related educational expenses.

"Subsidizing professional child care arrangements for an organization's employees makes sound business sense because it potentially reduces the stress and anxiety that working parents might regularly experience while worrying about their children during their normal work hours," said Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University in Crete, Neb. "And that stress and anxiety might well divert a parent's full attention from their assigned duties."

Making Sure It's Fair

To be sure, many companies have not considered offering any type of child care subsidy to working parents. A major reason often cited is that single employees, as well as those who are married without children or who have grown children, will feel slighted by an employer that offers a benefit they can't access.

"There is always that fairness doctrine that comes into play when you offer a subsidy to one employee because they have a special need that some other employee may not have or need," said Carol Kardas, SHRM-SCP, founding partner at KardasLarson, an HR consulting firm in Glastonbury, Conn. "Some may consider this a discriminatory practice, and [it] could be a cause for lower morale or productivity."

Some organizations overcome that issue by providing a different benefit instead to offset those perceptions. Wiedman suggested reviewing benefit allotments for such employer-paid offerings as elder care, the deductible required by the company-provided health care plan, the annual contribution to 401(k) retirement plans, health savings accounts, life insurance coverage (or additional disability insurance) and tuition reimbursement. The allotments can vary based on whether the employee also receives a child care subsidy.

Another option is to explain that by providing assistance to their colleagues, the workload will remain balanced and not fall more heavily on employees who don't have child care duties.

"Working parents who have to use paid time off to spend time with their children when no other arrangements can be made may also call out at the last minute, since arrangements can be canceled abruptly," Kardas said.

Alleviating Stress and Costs

Working parents who can't afford child care and don't receive a subsidy "are often interrupted by children wanting to share their toys or get a hug from dad," said Laura Handrick, an HR consultant in Phoenix. "I see the stress on parents' faces in Zoom meetings. It's too much to manage a full-time paid job and a full-time unpaid job [parenting] at the same time. The stress affects the worker's mental health, employee productivity and family relationships."

Offering child care subsidies can increase employee satisfaction and engagement, she said. "[Managers] earn employee loyalty and increased productivity from grateful employees who aren't ridiculously stressed by constant kid interruptions while working," Handrick said.

There is a financial benefit as well: Employers that supply child care subsidies can take advantage of an annual tax credit of up to $150,000 if they use it for qualified child care facilities and services. According to the IRS, "the credit is 25 percent of the qualified child-care facility expenditures, plus 10 percent of the qualified child-care resource and referral expenditures paid or incurred during the tax year." To receive the tax credit, employers must complete Form 8882.

Handrick said a company can start a child care subsidy program with flexible spending accounts (FSAs).

"The benefit of providing a child care subsidy to employees in the form of an FSA is that the employer contributes pretax dollars, reducing its payroll taxes," she said. "The employee can choose how much or how little to contribute. Those who prefer to send their children to a more expensive program can fund and pay for it through the FSA using pretax dollars."

Kardas said if workplaces hire essential workers, they could utilize government-run programs in their states, such as Connecticut's CTCARES for Child Care Program for first responders, grocery workers, state facility employees, and child care and group home workers. They could also tap into an employee assistance program (EAP) to help employees find or pay for child care, she said.

Another idea is to grant every employee a certain amount of personal time that can be used in special circumstances, such as when child care is closed or a child is sick or unable to attend a child care program on a given day.

"This type of personal time could also be given to and used by those who do not have children for attending appointments or other obligations that can't be done after work," Kardas said. "This time may not solve the issue of employees being absent, but the fact that all would share equally may help."

As workplaces reopen physical locations, HR can look for child care facilities in the immediate area and work with them to offer a discount to employees, Kardas recommended.

"Single moms and working parents rarely have an extra room at home to carve out a home office," Handrick said. "That means they're likely working from the kitchen or dining room with children at home demanding attention. Toddlers want to play, [and] school-age kids need help with online classes."

Larger employers and those with deeper resources may even consider establishing an onsite child care facility for employees and charging less than a typical child care facility, which experts agree would dramatically boost appreciation among working parents who could then visit their children during each workday.

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

How have you adapted to the pandemic? Share your story with SHRM's Government Affairs team as they educate decision-makers on crafting policies on work, workers and the workplace.

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