Texas Restaurateurs Launch Effort to Address Child Care Crisis Among Its Workers - Early Learning Nation

Texas Restaurateurs Launch Effort to Address Child Care Crisis Among Its Workers

Identifying child care as the top issue facing restaurateurs in Texas, a new business-led group has set out to find a range of solutions for the employees in the state’s food-service industry.

“When you survey restaurant operators in Texas and really anywhere across the United States, worker shortages is usually the top challenge that they identify,” said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer at the Texas Restaurant Association, in a recent telephone interview.

“It was that way before the pandemic,” she said. “During the peak of the pandemic, we had many other challenges we were facing, but now it’s back as the number one challenge for Texas restaurant operators of every size and every category.”

The restaurant industry is particularly sensitive to staffing levels because of the human-centric nature of the business, Streufert said. From servers and hosts at the front of house to kitchen staff and supporting roles, most workers aren’t able to work remotely.

“Texas cannot continue to have the Texas miracle to have this growing economy if our working families can’t afford to be in the workforce because they can’t find child care,” she said. “It’s not just a social good. It’s not just a family good. It’s not just an education good. It’s an economic imperative.” — Kelsey Erickson Streufert, Chief Public Affairs Officer, Texas Restaurant Association.

As part of its mission to help restaurant owners succeed, find talent and develop entrepreneurship opportunities, the industry group has formed the Employers for Childcare Task Force along with Early Matters Texas, Texas Association of Business and Texas 2036.

The task force’s goal, Streufert said, is to come up with solutions to support restaurant workers and their families by bringing the perspectives of private employers and workforce development to the topic of child care. Part of that involves elevating the issue in the public conscience and among lawmakers.

The issue of child care for restaurant workers has been gaining attention in recent years. Hollis Wells Silverman, a 2024 James Beard semifinalist based in Washington, D.C., spoke recently about the need for affordable child care and has instituted parental leave for new mothers at her restaurants, among other family-friendly policies.

‘An Economic Imperative’

Noting that the Texas economy has been strong over the past few years, Streufert linked the prospect of continued growth to accessible child care for families across the state.

“Texas cannot continue to have the Texas miracle to have this growing economy if our working families can’t afford to be in the workforce because they can’t find child care,” she said. “It’s not just a social good. It’s not just a family good. It’s not just an education good. It’s an economic imperative.”

The 50-member task force, Streufert added, would bring an “entrepreneurial problem-solving lens to this challenge.” Likening the restaurant and child care industries due to their low margins and heavy dependence on quality workers, she added, “It’s a really exciting opportunity to bring people who have dealt with challenges like this to the new problem that is child care and figuring out what are some unique solutions that are going to work and that are going to make sense in the political environment and the social environment that we have here in Texas.”

Growing awareness in Congress of the child care crisis in the United States resulted in an additional $1 billion in federal funding in 2024, including a $275 million increase for Head Start. Yet advocates say much more is needed to adequately meet families’ growing needs across the country.

What the Numbers Say

The lack of adequate child care costs the Texas economy an estimated $9.39 billion per year, according to research published in 2021 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Absences and turnover related to the dearth of child care resulted in losses of $7.59 billion for Texas employers, while child care issues meant $1.8 billion less in tax revenue for the state, according to the report.

Nationally, 60% of non-working parents say child care is a top reason they don’t participate in the workforce, Streufert said, citing a 2023 study by The Best Places for Working Parents, a business group that advocates for family-friendly policies. The study also found that 73% of highly credentialed women who leave the workforce say they would’ve stayed if they had access to flexibility.

The burdens of child care fall disproportionately on women, who make up 54% of the state’s restaurant workers, and adults under the age of 35, which account for 60% of the workforce, Streufert said.

“There’s a cost to this [child care] challenge right now,” Streufert said. “There’s a cost to every single employer — and there’s a cost to our economy as a whole.”

That doesn’t even take into account families that grapple with decisions around whether to remain in the workforce, Streufert added. “Just really underscoring the urgency of the challenge and the fact that this is hurting our economy and our families right now is really important.”

Child Care Deserts

As the largest and most populous state in the U.S., Texas brings additional challenges to its child care landscape.

“When we look at our state, we know over half of our ZIP codes are a child care desert,” Streufert said. And with a population north of 30 million, solutions are likely to be more expensive.

Programs or initiatives that work in other states like Kentucky or Georgia are great for inspiration, Streufert said, adding, “But those states are so much smaller, and so the solutions just by nature of the beast are more affordable or more within reach, so I think Texas has a unique challenge.”

All of those challenges layered atop each other led the trade group to join the effort to find solutions.

“That’s really what led us at the Texas Restaurant Association to say, ‘We’ve got to really lean into this challenge and come up with solutions that are not just going to fix the problem collectively but that are really going to work for our industry and our industry’s unique needs.’”

All Options on the Table

For now, the task force is in the brainstorming stage, Streufert said.

“The good news is a lot of other states have been active in this space in the last couple years, so one of the things that we’re doing is looking at everything any other state has tried. And we’re really looking at how will that work in Texas.”

Streufert said the group is examining such solutions as tax credits for employers that invest in child care for their employees, and matching state funds for what employers and employees spend on child care and regulatory reform to help care providers get up and running. Existing programs funded by state and federal funds are also worth looking at, she added.

(Previous studies have found that every $1 invested in early-childhood education results in broader economic benefits of $4 to $12.90. A more recent study suggested the return on investment for every $1 employers spend on child care could be as high as $18.)

“We’re looking at things like the workforce behind the workforce,” she said. “One of our major challenges with child care is how do we really invest in these educators? … And how do we make sure that that’s a profession that people want to come in and stay in?”

With child care workers earning an average of about $12 an hour in Texas, Streufert said, that presents its own challenges. “It’s a tough job, and it’s an important job, so what can we do to improve their work trajectory?”

In Texas, a public-private approach might be the best way forward, Streufert said. “Part of that is that families really need to be empowered to make the choice that works best for their families.”

In some school districts, that might mean more prekindergarten programs, while families and employers could continue to opt for private solutions.

“For us, where we are in Texas right now, the challenge is so great that we really need all of these options and all of these payers and all of these sort of funding streams on the table because it’s going to take patching those things together to improve our system,” Streufert said. “At least in this immediate trajectory.”

Bruno J. Navarro is a writer, editor and photographer who has covered business, technology, courts and education. His work has appeared in CNBC, Women's Wear Daily, NBC News, The Associated Press, Nylon and The Arizona Republic. Originally from Queens, New York, he currently lives in New Jersey.

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