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For years, child care benefits have been an attractive but elusive perk for workers, often more commonly available via built-in child care centers at the headquarters of large companies like Goldman Sachs or Publix, or through tuition discounts or back-up care plans for workers at companies like Citi or Adobe. But now, more companies are starting to roll out child care benefits for the lower-wage and hourly workers who are critical to day-to-day operations but who aren’t necessarily based at a company’s headquarters. Employees at these companies can receive child care tuition stipends and access to programs that can help them find care, bringing much-needed assistance to those who may struggle the most to afford care.

“It’s not just fancy tech companies doing it. It’s your local grocery store, manufacturing plant, it’s your theme park,” said Jessica Chang, co-founder of WeeCare, a company that facilitates child care benefits and oversees a network of home-based child care programs nationwide. In the year leading up to December 2021, Chang said she saw an 800 percent increase in the number of companies wanting child care benefits through the WeeCare platform. That included a shift in the types of companies signing on for child care benefits, she added, many of which are now providing benefits in “middle income” industries and for hourly workers.

This interest in child care benefits comes at a time when many parents, and especially mothers, have yet to reenter the workforce due to a lack of child care. At the same time, employers are experiencing what many are calling “The Great Resignation,” an influx of resignations and job changes among employees. Some of these employees are moving to companies that can offer them more in terms of salary and benefits, Chang said, which has pushed companies to rethink how they can recruit and retain employees. “We’ve seen employers starting to think about benefits for those essential workers,” she said.

Last summer, Dollywood Theme Park in Tennessee partnered with WeeCare to start providing a child care subsidy benefit for employees. Employees of the theme park, which has an average wage of $17 an hour, can log onto the WeeCare platform to find available, licensed family child care programs with availability during their scheduled shifts. The Dollywood Company pays each “host,” as it calls its employees, $100 each month toward child care.

“Understandably, we know that finding dependable childcare from trustworthy providers is one of our hosts’ major concerns,” said Tim Berry, Dollywood vice president of human resources, in a statement to The Hechinger Report. “When you have peace of mind that your kids are safe and taken care of, you’re going to be able to bring your best self forward when you are at work.”

Companies like Hy-Vee, a retail and supermarket chain in the Midwest, and cities like Los Angeles have also partnered with WeeCare to start offering child care for employees, many of whom have been essential workers during the pandemic.

During the past two years, child care disruptions related to the pandemic have been a key factor keeping parents — especially mothers — out of the workforce. As parents consider going back to work, many are finding the cost of care insurmountable. A report released in March found child care costs, which are already too high for many families, are rising. Between 2018 and 2020, the cost of full-time center-based care increased 5 percent for infants and toddlers. Across the country, workers spent up to 30 percent of their average wages on such care. A plan that would have subsidized the cost of care for many American families is stalled in Congress.

In Huntsville, Alabama, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing (MTM) will start offering a child care subsidy to workers at its manufacturing factory in May. Tony Dillon, project general manager at MTM, said the company is hoping to address “a really, really tough challenge with the workforce of today,” when it comes to balancing life and work. To provide the benefit, MTM, a new partnership between Mazda Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp., will partner with TOOTRiS, a platform that helps companies administer child care benefits and offers on-demand child care through a network of providers across the country. MTM will provide a subsidy of up to $250 a month toward child care costs for full-time employees, who make an average of $23 an hour, with potential plans to expand the program to part-time workers in the future. “The cost of this is easily offset with a happier, more motivated workforce,” Dillon said.

At MTM, employees typically work one of two shifts, a day shift that ends in mid-afternoon, and an overnight shift that ends just before 4 a.m. Dillon said finding child care during those hours can be challenging, which is why TOOTRiS is appealing. The platform partners with a variety of child care providers, including family child care programs, which may have more flexibility in their hours. “At the end of the day, there’s no silver bullet,” Dillon said. But, he added, “doing nothing is not the answer.”

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