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Michigan Pilot Program Attempts to Close Child-Care Gaps

With 44 percent of state residents living in a child-care desert, there aren’t enough options. Child care for two children uses 27 percent of a family’s income. The Tri-Share program aims to reduce those obstacles.

(TNS) — Four-year-old Fiona’s eyes lit up when her dad told her she could go to pre-k for five days a week. Her father, Jamie Holt, was teary eyed at her reaction.

“You would have thought I bought her a pony,” he said.

Holt’s employer, TentCraft in Traverse City, Mich., has signed onto the Tri-Share Child Care program splitting child care costs between the employer, employee and a state fund. He’s the first to participate in the program from his company.

The Tri-Share program is designed to catch families that fall in between making too much for federal aid but are still squeezed on their monthly budget. It’s one of the state’s latest attempts at viewing child care as economic development tool to get parents back into the workforce.

The Center of American Progress estimates 101,713 Michigan parents made career sacrifices in 2021 due to issues with child care — up significantly from 76,666 parents in 2019.

Availability and affordability continue to put parents between rock and a hard place. It’s estimated that 44 percent of Michigan’s population lives in a child care desert where there are not enough options. Meanwhile child care for two children takes up 27 percent of Michigan families’ income, according to CAP.

Splitting the cost into thirds with Tri-Share allows Holt’s youngest daughter to receive more early education at a lower cost. For care three days a week Holt was paying $500 monthly. With the program in place he estimates he’ll pay half that price to send her for a full week.

“The way my daughter’s eyes lit up – it’s emotional for me,” he said. “She’s my baby girl and she wanted this and I was really trying hard to figure out how to do it.”

To be eligible for Tri-Share, the employee must have an income between 185 percent and 285 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. That translates to an annual household income range of about $49,000 to $73,000 for a family of four.

The pilot program received $2.5 million in the 2022 state budget to continue and grow. Private funders have also stepped up, including $800,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The program will expand from three regions to 11 this year with the intention to touch every county.

To date, 27 employers and 17 employees are participating. The program is helping finance child care for 19 children across the state.

The Tri-Share investments are in addition to the $1.4 billion in federal COVID funds going toward helping child care providers, reducing costs and expanding subsidies to another 105,000 Michigan families.

One in three children under 12 are eligible for low or no-cost childcare, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

“Our investment in high-quality, affordable child care, continues to help parents get back to work and is foundational to our economic recovery,” Whitmer said. “As we drive down the cost of child care in Michigan, these lasting investments and public-private partnerships will empower us to help more working families in Michigan.”

Child Care Becomes a Recruitment Benefit

The Tri-Share program is intended to get employers involved and add a benefit to recruit and retain talent. TentCraft’s Human Resources Manager Rob Hanel said participating was a “no brainer” for the company.

The program gives TentCraft a platform to be “an advocate and an example employer,” Hanel said. The company has 76 employees, most of which are in their 20s to 40s. Hanel said it’s not uncommon for them to be celebrating a coworker’s marriage or first child.

With family in mind, they launched an infants in the workplace program for parents with newborns. Employees on the administrative side could bring their child with them to work until the baby began to crawl. On the manufacturing end parents got additional maternity and paternity time to equalize the program.

The Tri-Share program offered a benefit that could directly impact family budgets, especially for entry-level workers, Hanel said.

“Our hope is to really be loud about the Tri-Share program and our participation in it so that job seekers come to TentCraft,” he said. “Not just because the Tri-Share program but because they realize how much empathy is involved in our culture and in the way that we run our business.”

In Marshall, HR director Jackie Murray was enthusiastic and adamant about adding the Tri-Share program to manufacturer Marshall Excelsior Company’s benefits.

The gas valve manufacturer was deemed essential in 2020 and continued operation during the stay-at-home orders, but child care restraints resulted in 14 employees either adjusting their hours or taking a leave of absence during that time. In response Murray started researching and visiting local child care centers to try and coordinate care.

“There are struggles that are out there, and finding good daycare is one of them,” she said. “I’m a mom of seven kids and so I understand that. I have a heart for people who need that extra support.”

When the Battle Creek area was added to the Tri-Share program Murray said she was eager to get her company signed up so that Marshall Excelsior would have a financial stake in employee work-life balance.

“You can’t separate someone’s personal life from their work life,” she said.

In Auburn Hills, Jennifer Colberg, director of Ready, Set, Grow, needed an incentive to bring her employee back after maternity leave.

“My normal rates for a newborn for a full week is $240 so if you take that off of their paychecks sometimes it doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s better for them to stay home.”

To keep this employee Colberg decided to charge her a discounted rate, but at the cost of her own business taking a revenue hit. When Tri-Share became available in her area Colberg saw it as a retention tool. Her business is signed on as both a provider and an employer in the program.

“This also allows for me to get paid more so it’s kind of a win-win for all of us,” she said.

Child Care Staff Shortages Result in Serving Fewer Children

In the Battle Creek area, the Head Start program run by Community Action hasn’t been running at full capacity due to staff shortages, HR Director Dawn McDonald.

In 2020 there were 20 staff vacancies across the program, which spans three counties. In 2022 that number has jumped to 63 openings or about 32 percent of the workforce left vacant.

“We do need early childhood educators,” she said. “They are the foundation of our kids’ education.”

In a survey conducted in the summer of 2021, 87 percent of Michigan child care centers indicated that they were experiencing staffing shortages that forced 49 percent of them to serve fewer children, according to a report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Community Action has signed on as an employer so child care providers can afford care, too.

Nearly 1 in 5 child care workers in Michigan have incomes below the poverty line, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The Early Childhood Investment Corporation is creating career pathways for early childhood educators with apprenticeships that award educational certificates to help retain employees and boost pay, said Kelly Christman, Innovation and Policy Associate at the corporation.

“It’s important to note that many child care teachers cannot afford child care for their own children where they work,” Christman said. “[They’re] stuck because of the low wages they receive.”

Low wages were the main recruitment challenge for 78 percent of Michigan child care centers, according to the MLPP. Respondents said wages are so low that potential applicants are either relying on pandemic unemployment or are recognizing they can make more money working elsewhere.

The Tri-Share program is part of Community Action’s game plan to get workers not just into Head Start classrooms but into the child care industry as a whole, McDonald said.

“These are things we’re trying to build to incentivize people into the profession so we can fill these vacancies across the city and across the counties,” she said. “[And] so we can provide those services, certainly during this continuing pandemic.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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