Elliot’s Provocations: "Lose Your Job, Lose Your Child Care." - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: “Lose Your Job, Lose Your Child Care.”

Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.

We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.

Last fall, I received an email from a distraught mother. Her husband had been laid off by the large company for which he worked, and the company had just told them they had to give up their 3-year-old daughter’s slot in the company’s on-site child care center. The child had been attending the center for years, and both she and the family were very attached to the educators. The mother asked me if I could marshal some evidence about the harms of sudden caregiver transitions so they could appeal to corporate leadership.

I thought about this email as I was preparing for the release of my new report, Questioning the Promise of Employer-Sponsored Child Care Benefits, which was published by the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. While the report scrutinizes many facets of these benefits—and the implications of government increasingly incentivizing businesses to offer them—I was only able to give a brief treatment to one of the most wrenching human consequences: A system that relies heavily on employer-linked child care is a system where if you lose your job, you lose your child care.

Even in the currently strong economy, widespread layoffs are not uncommon. Already in the early months of 2024, over 40,000 tech workers have been fired, Nike laid off over 1,600 staff, and UPS is on track for over 12,000 layoffs. Overall, between 1.3 and 1.8 million workers are being fired in any given month.

As I wrote in the report, referencing the well-known risks of tying health insurance to employers:

Instead of “lose your job, lose your health care,” the equation is “lose your job, lose your child care.” In some ways, this latter situation is even worse—at least for parents and children, as job lock is favorable from an employer perspective—for two reasons. First, there is no equivalent of Continuation of Health Coverage (COBRA) or the Affordable Care Act marketplaces for employees to rely on for bridge coverage; instead, parents are thrust immediately into the failed child care market where supply is often nil and waitlists can be months to years long. Second, young children thrive on caregiver reliability and their development is mediated through trusted relationships; multiple transitions in child care settings is correlated with increased risk for behavioral problems and other negative outcomes.

This is a different concern than that of employers pulling away their child care offerings, whether closing on- and near-site centers or ending child care stipends. Those are company-wide policy decisions. The issue of what tethering child care to specific employers means for individual employees and their families is a much more personal drama.

The answer, as I have been emphasizing, is not to do away with on-site child care centers or suggest employers end any existing child care benefits. The answer is to wrap on-site programs and tuition stipends into a publicly-funded system, one where slots are affordable and not tied to specific ongoing employment.

Job lock, as research around health insurance has shown, can lead to a host of negative outcomes for employees. It makes them substantially less likely to seek out a different role even if it’s better paying, better located or has hours better aligned with their family life. Job lock may also keep employees stuck in jobs that are abusive, hazardous or otherwise detrimental to their well-being.

While there is limited research on job lock with regards to child care benefits, there is little reason to think the same problems don’t apply. In fact, given that only a minority of businesses offer child care benefits and there are so few other child care options, the gravitational pull to stay can be exceptionally strong. As journalist Rebecca Gale has reported about one health system in Marietta, Georgia:

Staff members who used the child care center at Wellstar Health had the lowest turnover rate—only 1.5%—among staff, according to an internal study which analyzed turnover and benefits.

“Basically no one leaves that utilizes the child care center,” said Penny Ferrell, the executive director for employee wellness and services at Wellstar.

If one is happy with their employer, that’s completely fine. But inherently, this situation takes power and autonomy away from employees.

Moreover, plenty of times the decision about whether or not to remain in a job is not up to the employee. Layoffs occur for any number of reasons ranging from cost-cutting measures to mismanagement to technological or geopolitical change. Even profitable companies can go through reorganizations. Linking child care to employment, then, is introducing a tremendous and largely unacknowledged risk into parents’ lives.

The answer, as I have been emphasizing, is not to do away with on-site child care centers or suggest employers end any existing child care benefits. The answer is to wrap on-site programs and tuition stipends into a publicly-funded system, one where slots are affordable and not tied to specific ongoing employment. Some employer-sponsored programs already hint at what this can look like by allowing community members to access a certain percentage of slots: as a personal example, my children attended a child care center owned by the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System despite neither my spouse nor I being employed there.

Unfortunately, policymakers are either not fully aware of, or else not compelled by, the dangers of employer-linked child care. Many states are currently falling over themselves to offer incentives to businesses using tens of millions of dollars in tax credits and grants, giving into the temptation of punting a public policy problem to the private sector. The other action to be taken is for states (and the federal government) to hit the brakes on these incentives. The taxpayer funds would reach far more families in a far more sustainable fashion by building toward an inclusive system with many types of strong, well-funded programs.

Similarly, employer energy would be far better used to forcefully advocate for an effective child care system that will help not only their employees, but the community and nation writ large. This may sound far-fetched, but we have examples. Vermont’s business community loudly fought for a small payroll tax to enhance the state’s child care system, while the group ReadyNation organizes a coalition of business executives to advocate for a publicly-funded system. (At minimum, businesses can choose to not actively oppose child care investments, which they have done with the Build Back Better Act and many state tax proposals.)

In the end, I was only able to offer limited help to the mother who emailed me (beside reassuring her that the fact her daughter had such caring, dedicated parents in her corner meant she would likely be OK). There is nothing to be said to an employer who wants the child care slot of a now ex-employee to use for a current one. And that’s the problem.

So why would we want to rush headlong to build a country where parents and children are at the mercy of employers when it comes to something as fundamental as child care? We’ve seen this story with health care. We know how it ends — and it doesn’t end well.

This column was developed with editorial support from the Better Life Lab at New America. All views are those of the author alone.

Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author ofCrawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including onThe PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times,The Washington Post, andThe Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.

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