Kendra Auker is president and CEO of the Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg. She oversees 2,000 employees, 1,600 of them women, and many of them in their child rearing years.
When COVID hit, Auker was worried. She knew some of her essential employees would choose to stay home to take care of young children learning remotely.
“We had to be more reasonable with our attendance policies,” she said. “We had to be more relaxed. Some schools didn’t let parents know if their children were going to be virtual or in-person until 7:40 a.m. that morning.”
Some 3 million women in the United States left the workforce during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 in the eight county south central Pennsylvania area.
“The labor force is as low as it has been in 33 years for women,” said Jesse McCree, CEO of South Central PA Works.
It’s largely because of issues with child care – either the day cares mothers counted on closed, or parents had to stay home with elementary school-age children learning remotely. Sixty percent of the stay at home parents were women.
“That’s a pretty big disconnect,” McCree said. “It’s even more concerning when we factor in diversity.”
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the percentage of white women in the workforce dropped by 5.2% between February 2020, the start of the pandemic, and December. For Black women, that figure was 9.5 percent and for Hispanic women, 8.3 percent.
That is why McCree has joined an informal group of agencies, educators and businesses trying to address the problem.
Laura Pottoff, director of the Cumberland County Economic Development Group, is spearheading the effort.
“Women have been overlooked in the workforce, and COVID has really brought it to life,” she said. “As the economic development agency for Cumberland County, we recognized gaps and needs to focus on workforce issues in our area. We pulled together stakeholders partners, including our major employers and educational institutions to begin this work. I am facilitating discussions with childcare entities, employers, and nonprofits to help advocate for change to support women in the workplace.
“Anyone interested in participating in these discussions are welcome to reach out and join our efforts to help with these critical issues,” she said.
Christy Renjilian, executive director of the nonprofit Child Care Consultants, said the situation particularly affected low-wage essential workers – the grocery store clerks, delivery people, home health aides, and other positions that were vital during COVID.
Those numbers include day care employees themselves, who make on average $9 to $11 an hour. Many day care centers closed at the beginning of the pandemic, either because of government mandates or because the costs of meeting safety guidelines were too high. According to one U.S. survey, one in four child care centers had closed as of December.
Those that reopened had trouble luring back employees who had to stay home with their remote learning children.
“I got a call from a nurse who said, “I need to be at the hospital. What do I do with my four kids,’” Renjilian said.
Some women shifted to a lower wage or part-time work for more flexibility, she said.
“For young families, child care is a significant part of their salary,” she said. “It behooves us as a community to figure out how we can support these families so kids can receive high quality care and parents can remain in the workforce or train.”
Searching for Solutions
Her agency has worked with employers on apprenticeship programs, job training and helping their employees find child care solutions.
“Businesses need to change their model,” she said.
Some have already taken those steps.
The Evangelical Community Hospital, aside from being more flexible in giving time off, partnered with the YMCA so parents could bring their children there to receive help with their remote learning. The hospital already had a priority arrangement for child care with a local provider.
PSECU opened an onsite child care center operated by Bright Horizons at its headquarters, which was able to remain open during the pandemic. It is used by 27 employee children and is also open to the general public.
“By keeping the doors open, we’ve been able to provide a valuable service to our local heroes that has allowed them to continue working – keeping us safe, making sure our grocery store shelves are well-stocked and caring for those in need of medical attention,” Barb Bowker, chief member experience officer at PSECU, said during an early learning economic summit.
The on-site center “makes life just a little easier and a little less stressful,” she said.
The Giant supermarket chain plans to open an on-site child care center in 2022 at its headquarters in Carlisle in conjunction with U-Gro Learning Centers.
Ashley Flower, public relations manager for Giant, said the company added 7,000 jobs in response to the pandemic demand for grocery services. It underscored the company’s need to be nimble and flexible regarding the workforce.
“After hearing from our own team members about the challenges they were facing, last year, in partnership with PA Key and The Hershey Company, we awarded $200,000 in grants to child care facilities,” she said. “And in January, we announced plans for a new U-Gro facility adjacent to our corporate campus, providing the Carlisle community, and likely many of our team members, with high quality childcare.”
President Biden has made child care a focus of his administration. On April 15, he announced the release of $39 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to address the child care crisis caused by COVID-19.
“These providers have been on the frontlines caring for the children of essential workers and support parents, especially mothers, who want to get back to work,” his administration said in a press release.
The gender wage gap is expected to increase by 5% due to the pandemic. As a result, “families with young children, and especially families of color where mothers are more likely to be sole or primary bread winners, may face financial burdens for years to come” it said.
Renjilian said she had not yet studied Biden’s proposals so couldn’t comment on them, but added “we have known for a long time we need more money for child care.”
The country puts public money into kindergarten to grade 12, but ignores the ages from birth to 5 when children’s brains develop most rapidly.
High quality childcare is “the best public money we could spend,” she said.
McCree, who also has not looked at the specifics of Biden’s plan, said Democrats and Republicans have both recognized the importance of good child care. He said it’s encouraging to see child care become a federal consideration.
The longer women remain out of the workforce, the longer it takes them to find new jobs, he said. They can also lose skills in the interim.
“Those who have the least are the most impacted,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see business leaders tackle this head on – figuring that investing in their workforce is an asset, not a liability.”
Auker said all organizers are going to have to take a look at child care if they want to be attractive as employers. That will be true even after the pandemic.
“This is a big issue for employers going forward,” she said.