Jefferson County a ‘daycare desert’

Bertha Cooper

Bertha Cooper

THREE BABIES ATTENDED the first meeting of Jefferson Healthcare’s task force on child care.

I’ve been a member of, or facilitated, hundreds of task forces in my career in health care. This was the first one in which babies attended.

Typically, my task forces consist of people working in health care such as health care providers, nurses, therapists, various department workers and administrators.

The same was true of this task force except these Jefferson Healthcare (JH) employees were attending as parents.

The babies attended as babies and served as cute symbols of their parents’ struggle to find child care.

Mike Glenn, Jefferson Healthcare’s CEO, called for the formation of the task force to explore the shortage of child care in the community and what, if anything, JH could do to relieve the problem.

Glenn had reason to be concerned since the shortage of available child care slots impacts recruitment and retention of employees with children 5 years and younger.

Child Care Aware estimates that since 2013, the number of licensed child care providers dropped from nine to seven with a decrease from 202 child care slots to 153, which earns Jefferson County the organization’s designation as a “Daycare Desert.”

Sadly, the trend predicts an increasing decline fueled by increased regulatory costs and a population of young families unable to absorb an increase in costs.

The shortage is greatest for infants, defined as up to age 18 months, in a county with four infant care slots currently.

The economics of many young families requires both parents to work to manage daily expenses and save for housing.

That is until they reach the point at which the cost of child care for more than one child equals the take-home pay of one parent.

We learned from some parents that one parent, usually Mom but sometimes Dad, becomes the stay-at-home parent while the other works.

The trade-offs are a lower standard of living, usually in housing, and/or one parent forgoing a career for an extended time.

The reality that having a good salary and money to spend does not necessarily give parents an advantage was surprising and further illustrates the depth of the shortage.

There are no nanny agencies and, as the task force learned, nannies are often temporary and don’t necessarily desire a rural setting.

What’s an employer or community to do?

The JH solution seemed obvious. JH should establish a child care center for its employees. Why wouldn’t that work?

JH’s designations as a critical access and a public district hospital allow the hospital to maintain services from emergency to oncology.

Becoming a child care provider, a non-health care service, would result in a reduction in Medicare reimbursement and risks a use of funds not allowed by hospital districts

The underlying and unforgiving problem is that the business model for child care is unsustainable.

Most people don’t go into or stay in a business to just get by or lose money.

Larger child care centers have a chance; however, some require subsidization such as free space.

As the task force learned, solutions are complicated in the current environment.

My view is that inadequate child care is a failure of an outdated system of regulation and reimbursement that doesn’t support innovation and opportunity to provide an important service.

Sustainable solutions will require the focus and involvement of many vested interests: parents who need child care, employers, and community leaders who recognize the importance of attracting and keeping young families in the community.

My sense from my experience with JH’s task force is that we are about to move into the hand-wringing phase if communities and employers don’t begin to focus on issues of young families, adequate child care being one of them.

Shortly following our hand wringing will be the crisis.

________

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at [email protected]

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