Child care dilemma

Initiatives around Alabama aim to increase access to child care for the workforce

Autumn Zellner shares a story with youngsters at her STARS Early Learning Academy in Fairhope. Photo by Bill Starling.

As early as 6:30 a.m., parents arrive at the STARS Early Learning Academy in Fairhope to drop their young children off for the day before heading off to work.

The day care center is open year-round from 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. “We cater to double-working families,” says the facility’s director and owner, Autumn Zellner.

Zellner, a former elementary school teacher, launched her day care center in 2020 at a time when many day cares around the nation struggled to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she prevailed, the culmination of a long-held dream, she says.

“I taught for 15 years, but I always knew I liked the littles. I like the energy of it and how much they can grow within a year’s time,” she says.

Today, she and her staff of 17 oversee and teach around 60 youngsters ranging from infants to pre-K with a curriculum that includes science, technology, reading, the arts and sports.

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But, Zellner says her day care has a two-year waiting list.

The anxious parents on that list are not alone in their frustration. The truth is, for many parents across Alabama, accessible, affordable, high-quality child care is simply out of reach, and that inaccessibility is having a troubling impact on the state’s workforce.

Everything is designed with children in mind at STARS Early Learning Academy in Fairhope. Photo by Bill Starling.

For example, a survey by Alabama Partnership for Children reported a gap of 85,554 in available child-care slots and that an estimated 60% of Alabama children under the age of five lived in “child care deserts,” where either no child care exists or where too few exist to serve at least a third of the need.

Furthermore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center reports that even pre-COVID, the number of licensed child-care centers in Alabama fell from 2,340 in 2010 to 1,698 in 2019.

And among licensed family day care homes, the numbers fell from 844 in 2010 down to 428 in 2019.

In 2023, the number of licensed child care centers fell even further to 1,484 while licensed family day care homes rose to 562, according to the state Department of Human Resources.

Many Alabama parents are also grappling with the high cost of child care. In a recent survey of 3,000 parents nationwide, 67% reported spending 20% or more of their annual household income on child care.

In Alabama, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor national database of child-care prices, the median yearly price at infant- and toddler-care centers in 2018 was about $6,728 while the annual price for pre-school center care was about $6,101.

By 2023, the median yearly price at infant- and toddler-care centers had risen to $7,919 and $7,182 for pre-school center care.

And when parents either cannot afford or access child care, businesses suffer, too, through increased absences, employee turnover, reduced hours of operations and even closures, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In fact, employers lose anywhere from $400 million to $3 billion annually due to the resulting employee absences and turnover, says a U.S. Chamber study.

The Alabama Department of Labor reported that while the state enjoyed a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of just 2.1% in August 2023, the labor participation rate was a staggering 57%, up from 56.9% in August 2022.

As a matter of fact, Alabama ranks 48th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia for labor participation, according to the World Population Review.

George Clark, president of Manufacture Alabama, a trade association representing some of the largest manufacturers in the state, says he believes the child care shortage is one reason for the low labor participation rate. 

It is so bad that child care is a frequent topic of conversation among the members of Manufacture Alabama, Clark says.

“I’ve been around the state numerous times in breakout sessions and one of the barriers of people going to work or training, and, it has been stated by not just me but others, is that child care or the lack thereof is a major obstacle to increasing the labor participation rate,” Clark says.

“We’ve got to find additional workers to get into the system, and solving the problem of child care would help immensely,” he says.

For now, however, some of state’s automakers are helping their workers access quality day care.

In Madison, for example, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing has teamed up with the on-demand, online child care platform called TOOTRiS.

The TOOTRiS platform gives workers access to a network of licensed child-care providers in their area. From their PC or mobile phone, parents can compare child-care providers, vet them and enroll their child in an affordable day care center or in places that offer temporary care, drop-ins or even child-care settings that accommodate non-traditional work schedules.

Furthermore, MTM team members can bring their preferred provider into the network and access up to $3,000 per year that MTM provides to each team member as a subsidy for child care expenses through their TOOTRiS program, MTM External Affairs Specialist Jessica Luther says.

MTM provides a child care subsidy through TOOTRiS for team members’ annual child-care costs if they are enrolled with TOOTRiS. This subsidy provides 30% or up to $250 a month — $3,000 annually — in child-care expenses, including daycare, afterschool care, summer camps and in-home care, she says.

Besides the TOOTRiS program, MTM, as part of the employee benefits package, offers its team members Dependent Care FSA accounts where they can contribute up to $5,000 annually, tax free, to pay for child care.

And in Vance, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) maintains an on-site day care called Shining Stars Early Learning Center for its team members’ children.

Open since 2002, Shining Stars Early Learning Center serves children from infants to pre-school age, says MBUSI spokesperson Felyicia Jerald.

And while the company does not provide subsidies for Center fees, the rates are comparable to what workers would pay at other child care centers, but with the added convenience of being on-site, she says.

But while some companies are attempting to address the child-care issue for workers, Clark, a former chairman of Alabama’s Workforce Investment Board, says the lack of affordable day care is also having a negative effect on efforts to attract students for workforce training.

“The problem is they’re not going to get trained because of child-care issues, and they’re not going to work,” Clark says.

Donny Jones, executive director of West AlabamaWorks.

In Tuscaloosa, West AlabamaWorks, the workforce division of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, is engaged in an initiative to help create more quality, in-home day care businesses in the region.

The initiative, called the Community Childcare Cultivation program or 3by3, is a partnership among West AlabamaWorks, Shelton State Community College, Paths for Success Foundation and the state Department of Human Resources to train participants to operate their own in-home day cares.

Donny Jones, executive director of West AlabamaWorks, says in-home day care options are important since most child care centers close in the late afternoon or early evening and may not accommodate parents in certain fields and blue-collar jobs that require overnight and rotating shifts.

“In home child care is more conducive to those shift type scenarios when it comes to manufacturing,” Jones says.

At the same time, the program is training participants to become entrepreneurs, he says.

“One of the problems is that we have so many people that are sitting around the table of white-collar decision makers, and they automatically focus on what they know. We’re looking at a holistic approach,” he says. 

But in the meantime, Zellner says she frequently finds herself advising parents to get on as many day care waiting lists as possible and consider their options.

“They might find that they have to get their child into some place that might not be their home forever,” she says.

“That might be a necessity for them to find any child care until they can find a quality spot that they’re really looking for.”

Gail Allyn Short and Bill Starling are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham and he in Mobile.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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