As the mother of two young children who headed back to school this month, I have had firsthand experiences with the incredible challenges of finding high-quality, affordable child care here in Vermont.
I added another perspective to the issues surrounding child care when I became a small business owner in 2015. This issue clearly affects nearly all Vermont families, but it also affects our small businesses.
Looking around at the child-care options, most were just as expensive as my mortgage, and I am hardly alone. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of child care exceeds the cost of a mortgage and in-state college tuition in many states. In Vermont, infant care costs almost 10 percent more than the average rent; it is also the least available type of child care.
I started my business, Stowe Street Cafe, after I left my full-time position working in children’s mental health with flexibility and balance in mind. We very intentionally built such flexibility into our business operations with “family first” as part of the values we have honored from day one.
For example, the cafe is closed on Sundays so we can be home with our kids, and we will sometimes turn down catering or special events in order to balance family with work.
When some of the single moms we employ have needed to be home with their sick kids, we found a way to cover for them or closed slightly early, all while paying them for their sick time.
We are quite clear that this support and investment in our employees has greatly contributed to our extremely low turnover rates and high employee and customer satisfaction.
Most small businesses, however, are not as flexible. In fact, over a third of small business owners have had to delay even starting due to child care challenges, according to a report by the Main Street Alliance.
And, it’s not just the business owners. Child care is a very real problem for employees, too. According to Child Care Aware, over a six-month period, 45 percent of working parents were absent from work at least once due to child-care breakdowns, and U.S. businesses lose about $4.4 billion annually because of these issues.
Having access to high-quality child care allowed me to take the time to build my business to a point where I can now employ others to successfully manage its day-to-day operations. Now that my own kids are both in school, I am back full-time working again for children’s mental health, fully integrated into both the brain science behind the benefits of high-quality child care and the economics of supporting the extraordinary child-care needs of my fellow Vermonters.
As a small business owner, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that my hard-working, valuable employees also have the ability to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones without incurring a significant financial hardship or feeling torn between having to choose between family and work.
The fact is that the majority of working Vermonters are employed by small businesses that, like mine, cannot afford to provide such a benefit on their own without the support of a state-managed program. At the same time, even Vermont’s largest corporations stand to benefit from such a program by reducing their expenses while also investing in and supporting their employees.
Successful policies that would support both Vermont families and small businesses, like mine, do exist. Here in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott has wisely made child care and paid leave a top priority. Paid family and medical leave supports parents in those crucial first months, but the need for child care extends well beyond just 12 weeks.
High-quality, affordable child care throughout early childhood will take innovations such as the federal Child Care for Working Families Act.
Addressing the need for high-quality, affordable child care improves employee morale and loyalty, reduces absenteeism, and increases business productivity, all while ensuring that children and families can achieve the best outcomes right from the start. This is more than a family issue — it’s a small-business issue, too.
Nicole Grenier is director of the children, youth and family services division of Washington County Mental Health Services Inc., the owner of Stowe Street Cafe in Waterbury, and a former board member of the Main Street Alliance of Vermont.