Inside Utah’s outsized child care problem
Sydney Stoner and her daughter, Charlotte, at the ARUP Laboratories’ playground.
Sonia La’ulu always envisioned she would be a stay-at-home mom. But when the time came for her to make that transition, she realized how much her career fulfilled her. She decided she wanted to stay, and—with the imperative support of her colleagues and mentors—she continued working as a research and development scientific manager at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City.
La’ulu is far from alone in this. According to a 2021 study by the Department of Workforce Services, women make up 44 percent of Utah’s labor force, and 62 percent of those women are mothers with children under six.
La’ulu’s daughter was among the first children to utilize ARUP’s on-site day care in 2007. “Then we had twins, so three kids in day care. You can imagine how expensive [child care would have been],” she says. With her children nearby, La’ulu could look out the window to see her kids playing on the playground and nurse them during her lunch breaks. More than anything else, she claims, benefits like these have enabled her to stay at ARUP for the past 20+ years.
“It’s about supporting human families,” La’ulu says, claiming that child care is not just a women’s issue. “Companies should really be mindful of the impact women have on their organizations and how, once loyalty is created between an individual and the company they work for, it goes both ways. The needs of mothers are unique for just a short period of time, and then the child gets older. I hope they think of the flexibility they gave me as, ‘I’m glad Sonia is still around.’”
Economic loss inside and outside of the home
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report released in January found that complications connected to insufficient child care options in Utah lose the state an estimated $1.36 billion per year in economic opportunity. The report also found that child care-related absences and employee turnover cost Utah employers an estimated $1.10 billion annually.
On an individual level, child care-related economic loss is similarly staggering. A February report by the Urban Institute for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau found that, on average, white mothers lose 15 percent of their lifetime earnings—or about $237,000—to accommodate caregiving. Latinas see their lifetime earnings slashed by 19 percent, Black mothers by 8 percent, and 14 percent for other groups, including Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander mothers.
“Many caregivers must curtail their employment or stop work altogether to accommodate their care responsibilities,” the report continues. “Declines in work hours reduce their earnings while they provide care and thus limit the subsequent retirement income they receive from Social Security and employment-based retirement plans, which depends on past earnings. Reduced employment can also slow caregivers’ wage growth, especially for those who take lower-paying jobs or miss out on promotions because of their caregiving obligations. Thus, the economic cost of family care can persist long after caregiving activities end.”
As a sector, child care is in market failure
Of the 307 parents surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in the above report, over 56 percent of parents in all income groups said they chose child care providers based on affordability. New research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found Utah families pay an average of $9,000 per year for toddlers in center-based child care.
“In many states, including Utah, the cost of infant care is more expensive than college tuition,” reads a 2022 white paper from the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP). “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that child care is unaffordable if it costs more than 7 percent of a family’s income. In the United States, couples are likely to spend 11 percent of their income on child care, and single parents 36 percent.”
Child care is unaffordable for many families, yet child care providers live in poverty. According to the UWLP white paper, those who work in the industry average an annual salary of $24,000. A typical child care center’s profit margin is only 1 percent.
With this grim outlook, Utahns aren’t exactly lining up to become child care providers, and the lack of options makes child care even more difficult for parents to secure. A 2019 analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated that 153,950 Utah children had both parents participating in the workforce and would require care, while there was only a capacity of 55,460 formal child care slots and a resulting gap of 98,750 children.
The pandemic only exacerbated this already overwhelming problem, with 48 percent of employees in the analysis saying they needed to make a “significant adjustment” to their school or work activity due to child care issues in 2022. Furthermore, 19 percent of parents who participated said they planned to leave their job entirely in the next 12 months, with 37 percent saying child care concerns were their reason for going.
Photo courtesy of CAPSA.
Long-running success models
It can be challenging for nonprofit employers to compete with for-profit ones regarding salary and benefits. But unlike pool tables and corporate retreats, on-site child care is a benefit that inarguably increases workplace returns—and the one at the Citizens Against Physical and Sexual Abuse recovery center (CAPSA) in Logan, Utah, has run for over 25 years.
“Initially, our children’s program was established to complement our shelter,” says James Boyd, chief development and marketing officer at CAPSA. “Our CEO, Jill Anderson, saw it as an opportunity to empower employees by making it available to them. Initially, it was very difficult to fund the program. Having our staff utilize it allowed us to grow it quickly. It’s about doing what’s right for our clients and employees.”
Because most of CAPSA’s funding comes from supportive donors or grants, implementing an on-site child care program felt like a leap of faith, Boyd says. But the program took off, and needs have continued to grow with the organization’s growing workforce. With 68 employees, CAPSA has almost tripled its children’s space in the last 18 months.
The program costs about one-third the rate of other child care providers in the community, Boyd says, and it’s more flexible, too (providers don’t charge late fees if a parent has to work longer hours than usual, for example). On-site youth advocates are trained on trauma and life skills, a benefit experienced by the children of both survivors and employees.
“It feels like a very high-skill child care center,” Boyd says. “When the survivor’s children come in, it’s fun to see this group of kids surround them and involve them. Imagine [being a child] after a traumatic experience—you’re so apprehensive and nervous. But when another kid says, ‘Sit with us’ or ‘Play with us’ or ‘Dance with us,’ it opens these kids up to interact. It’s a very complementary program.”
A strong hiring and retention strategy
When Overstock designed its headquarters in Midvale in 2017, company leadership ensured the plans included an on-site child care facility to offer employees reliable, convenient and affordable child care. “After all, child care is not a family issue; it’s a business issue,” says Dave Nielsen, president of Overstock. “We know that when employees have peace of mind that their children are close, safe and receiving quality care, they are more productive and satisfied at work.”
The space currently accommodates 48 children from six weeks to five years old, Nielsen continues. And the company’s commitment to child care support extends even further: Since 2018, Overstock’s Caregiver Travel Policy pays the cost of one additional roundtrip airfare for any employee with a child under 24 months of age, allowing those who are required to travel for work to bring a caregiver with them.
“This policy allows Overstock employees to meet the needs of their job without sacrificing as much time with their young children,” Nielsen says. “It also helps support new parents while they adjust to the demands of both parenthood and their professional roles at Overstock.”
Implementing these programs wasn’t always a smooth ride, Nielsen says, citing barriers like investment in infrastructure, equipment and supplies; expertise in insurance liability and risk; management of a child care center, including safety and regulatory requirements; and finding and training caregivers.
But it’s been worth it. Nielsen proudly tells the story of one mother who, after receiving a call from Overstock’s day care informing her of her daughter’s fever, was able to take her from the day care to the on-site medical clinic within six minutes. There, the physician quickly diagnosed her daughter with an ear infection and provided antibiotics from the on-site dispensary—all in a fraction of the time it would have otherwise taken to check her daughter out of a neighborhood day care, navigate traffic, seek medical attention and visit the pharmacy.
To employers who may be daunted by the work and funding required to implement child care support at the scale Overstock has, Nielsen claims an “all or nothing” mentality doesn’t have to be the case and that smaller steps can significantly impact employees’ lives. He suggests implementing flexible work policies; exploring partnerships with local child care providers; providing employees with a comprehensive list of local child care resources like licensed day care centers, preschools and after-school programs; and establishing family-friendly leave policies that go beyond the legally mandated requirements.
“Empowering employees with child care support isn’t just a perk; it’s a catalyst for success,” Nielsen says. “From enhanced productivity to increased loyalty, investing in child care is a win-win for both employers and their workforce. … It’s an investment that pays priceless dividends.”
"Physical child care, it turns out, is one of the biggest signals you can send to people that you care about working parents and that you care about women because women disproportionately have to manage and find child care. It sends a signal that we care about diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s evidence of these bigger things about our culture that we talk about."
Photo courtesy of Overstock.
A more supportive future
Heather Kirkby, chief people officer at Recursion, calls the time of life spent caring for children under five “the chaos years.” Luckily for employees of the Salt Lake City-based pharmaceuticals company, Recursion co-founder and CEO Chris Gibson understands just how chaotic finding child care can be.
After incredulously eyeing the length of day care waitlists after his child was born years ago, Gibson considered quitting working on his startup to become a stay-at-home father. Ultimately, he and his wife found Bright Horizons, the child care and early education provider that now partners with Recursion to power its on-site child care facility.
“It was important to us that it was truly on-site,” Kirkby says. “We were doing this to both attract the diversity of talent but also to really make their lives easier. This was about quality child care and giving [employees] peace of mind and convenience so they could come and work for us.”
Recursion’s child care center is connected to the rest of the company’s headquarters through the kitchen, and the same chefs that prepare employee lunches five days a week also prepare snacks and lunch for the children enrolled there. With an aquarium, outdoor playground and motifs of rainbows and hexagons, the center is an extension of Recursion’s brand.
“We’re doing an extraordinarily hard thing, decoding biology,” Kirkby says. “Our mission is to radically improve lives. We’re going to take care of our employees and their families so they can do this hard thing with us.”
Kirkby says that on-site child care has expanded and diversified Recursion’s talent pool, but what has really surprised her is the “halo effect” the initiative has had on all employees, including non-parents.
“Physical child care, it turns out, is one of the biggest signals you can send to people that you care about working parents and that you care about women because women disproportionately have to manage and find child care,” she continues. “It sends a signal that we care about diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s evidence of these bigger things about our culture that we talk about.”
Kirkby acknowledges that implementing on-site or subsidized child care is a one-way door. To leaders standing on the precipice of the business decision, she challenges them to “run the economics.” She claims that, for Recursion, on-site child care has been a net positive in every sense. And to other companies that aren’t interested in exploring options like these that support working parents, that’s fine—but Recursion might just take their talent.
“I would much rather that all companies were great because when companies are great, society is great,” Kirkby says. “The next generation will inherit this planet, this society and all of the things we are building. We should be building great companies that take care of parents, working parents and women. And in Utah especially, we have more than enough data to tell us that we have work to do. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem for perpetuating the status quo.”
Photo courtesy of Recursion.