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Simon: Childcare as essential infrastructure
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Simon: Childcare as essential infrastructure

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Daycare

Children paint on the sidewalk — and their own hands — in May 2013 at Appletree Learning Center in Casper. 

The opening line of a new brief from the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, the Wyoming Council for Women, and the Equality State Policy Center packs a punch.

“Nationally, women lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the recession — nearly 1 million more job losses than men.”

Here in Wyoming, the report points out, unemployment claims by Wyoming women were up 11% last year — from 31% in 2019 to a 42% in 2020.

One of the reasons that women lost jobs and businesses lost key employees? Because as the pandemic revealed — and as parents, business owners, and early childhood education professionals have long known — childcare, paid and unpaid, is the work that makes all other work possible. And women still shoulder most of those care responsibilities.

Childcare is not just a family issue, but a workforce, business and economic issue, and prioritizing its investment will strengthen our state. Gov. Mark Gordon’s recent report, “Proposals for the Future: How Wyoming can Survive, Drive, and Thrive,” recognizes this, putting childcare front and center.

Speaking on a panel in July, Robin Cooley, director of Wyoming Workforce Services and a member of the team that worked on the governor’s report, said, “Is there quality childcare out there? That is a big factor in determining whether [people] are even able to go back to work.”

She’s right.

In a recent op-ed, Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted the COC’s finding that 58 percent of parents who left the workforce did so because they could not find childcare. “As the country faces a worker shortage crisis, nearly one in four unemployed Americans cited childcare and other family needs as a factor in why they are not actively looking for work.”

The idea that ensuring access to quality childcare makes good business sense is not new.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long championed it as an essential business issue, touting the benefits of company-provided childcare: a 30% decrease in absenteeism and a whopping 60% decline in job turnover.

Imagine! Workers who have a safe, reliable place to send their kids during the day, miss less work and stay longer in their jobs. In a labor-constrained environment like Wyoming’s, that’s not just important for families, it’s vital for every local business.

A recent report from Catalyst, a global nonprofit striving to build better workplaces for women, also found that women with childcare responsibilities who can work remotely are 32% less likely to report that they plan to leave their job. Remote work is clearly not a solution for everyone, but it is an important tool in the policy toolbox.

So how do we tackle an issue like this?

Recognizing the childcare problem as a structural one is a great first step. The new brief from the Wyoming Women’s Foundation and Equality State Policy Center, plus policy recommendations from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and existing infrastructure work in other states all offer a roadmap for next steps.

Suggestions — well timed for Wyoming’s deployment of our American Rescue Plan Act funds — include:

  • In sectors where remote work is possible, flexible work policies — and investment in broadband infrastructure — can help keep women at work.
  • States can invest in the childcare workforce and the business side of childcare. South Dakota has excellent recommendations to enhance workforce stability and worker retention in the childcare sector.
  • Business owners can support working parents by adopting policies in the workplace. The US Chamber of Commerce has great suggestions in their business case for early childhood education. Their first suggestion: Find out what employees’ needs are.

  • Local solutions are essential, too. Commissioners Willox and Macker suggest communities co-locate childcare facilities with community colleges to align early childhood and post-secondary education.

The lack of childcare options is a structural problem — and a business infrastructure issue — and we run the risk of stifling our state’s economy. By prioritizing and investing in childcare, Wyoming’s business leaders, state and local officials will ensure our communities have work forces that can support our families and our state’s economy — now and into the future.

Childcare is a win for families, communities, businesses and Wyoming’s economy.

Jennifer M. Simon is senior policy advisor at the Equality State Policy Center and the founder of the Wyoming Women’s Action Network and has served on the Wyoming Council for Women.

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