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Bridging the Care Gap: Officials discuss child care hurdles, legislation at chamber event

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For the second time in as many years, legislation to support the child care industry that state officials say has bipartisan support is seeking passage in Jefferson City. The hopes are that a tax credit package intended to improve access and affordability of child care will cross the finish line this session, according to panelists at a Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce event on Jan. 11.

Kara Corches, vice president of governmental affairs with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, moderated the discussion, which centered on child care challenges.

“This is one of our top priorities in the Capitol,” she said. “It’s an issue that we hear from members every single day about, and what we have found is that child care is not just an issue for working parents to figure out. This really is a statewide economic issue.”

The economic impact to the state is significant. A 2021 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated Missouri loses $1.35 billion annually through accessibility, quality and cost-related hurdles related to child care. Corches said $280 million of the losses is from tax revenue when a parent’s child care facility is closed permanently or temporarily.

“Part of the $1.35 billion loss is a direct hit to employers if you do not have employees coming to work or quitting their jobs because child care is costing too much,” she said. “Well, you have turnover costs. It costs money to go out and recruit new employees to train them. You also have a loss of productivity.”

Corches, who lives in Kansas City and is a mother of a 3-year-old, said she paid $21,000 for child care last year.

“I’m lucky that I could find a slot,” she said.

Officials say House Bill 1488, sponsored by Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, is a comprehensive child care credit package making its way through the Missouri House of Representatives. Numerous chambers of commerce representatives, including Springfield chamber president and CEO Matt Morrow, spoke in favor of the legislation at a Jan. 10 public hearing in Jefferson City. It remains in committee as of press time.

Joining Corches on the recent panel were Jennifer Crouch, director of the Early Childhood Education Center at Ozarks Technical Community College; Darrel Hopkins, president of trucking company Prime Inc.; and state Rep. Stephanie Hein, D-Springfield.

Prime benefit
Hopkins, a nearly 30-year employee at Prime who was recently promoted to president, said on-site benefits at the company’s Springfield headquarters are among its greatest assets. One of those is Prime Kids Learning Center, a child care facility primarily for Prime employees at its 2740 N. Mayfair Ave. facility.

“There’s some benefits to having an on-site child care facility because most of the current facilities may not offer extended hours, or if they do, it comes at a high price,” he said, noting it allows employees to be more productive by not having to leave work early to go pick up children elsewhere. “With an on-site facility, you go down and see your child anytime you want, anytime of the day. And that’s pretty dang cool.”

Prime Kids is open 6 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, according to its website.

Anna Messick is director of the child care facility, which employs 18 teachers and opened in 2000. It includes eight classrooms and has enrollment for children ages 6 weeks through preschool.

“We are licensed up to age 12, so we do a school-age program in the summertime for ages 5 to 12,” she said. “It’s for just associates’ kids that need care during the summer months. We do that for holiday breaks too.”

Prime Kids is licensed for 111 and has 97 enrolled, Messick said. The addition of a second playground last year allowed the center’s capacity to expand.

“For the past 23 years, the capacity was 82, so we were pretty close to that,” she said.

Messick said her 2-year-old daughter attends Prime Kids, adding her husband, James, also works for Prime in the accounting department. She said the financial concerns some people feel about staying home instead of being in the workforce is understandable, as it’s a situation she’s been in as well. Messick began working at Prime Kids after giving birth.

“I taught before this and that’s kind of what pulled me away from teaching in a sense,” she said. “I was going to have to find somewhere for her to go. My husband already worked here, so then this job came available and then it just all worked out.”

According to a 2021 report by Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost of center-based infant care in Missouri is $9,516, which is above the national average of $9,095.

Workforce challenge
OTC’s Crouch has worked over 20 years in early childhood education, noting child care is a difficult workforce development issue to solve. While she said there are still employees willing to work in child care for very low wages, the economic environment is making it extremely challenging.

“It’s just no longer a working business model,” she said. “And that’s where we’ve got to work together to find some solutions.”

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, median pay in 2022 for child care workers nationwide was $28,520 per year or $13.71 per hour. The hourly median wage in Missouri is $13.50.

Hein, who previously served as chair of Missouri State University’s Department of Hospitality Leadership, said she frequently had students looking to start a career and family but were concerned how to afford both.

“That’s a big challenge. And I get that because I faced that challenge 27 years ago whenever I had my first child,” she said. “This is not a new issue. It’s just becoming extremely compounded by economic forces.”

Adding to the challenge is a 2023 report by nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation, which reports without congressional action roughly 70,000 child care programs will likely close as American Rescue Plan Act funding dries up. That will lead to roughly 3.2 million children – nearly 11,000 in Missouri – losing access to care.

For those seeking child care providers, Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc. launched Child Care Connect in 2022. The program, created in partnership with the local Parents as Teachers program at Springfield Public Schools, provides a database to help parents living in Greene, Christian, Polk and Webster counties connect with providers to find child care spots.

Amanda Coleman, vice president of early childhood and family development at CPO, said it has served roughly 300 families. Families can fill out a form on the CPO website and their information is sent directly to Coleman.

“If I know of open positions or if providers have connected with me to communicate that they have an open slot, then I send families through email that information,” she said. “Whether or not they connect with those providers is not something that we’re tracking right now.”

Hein said it’s going to take a team effort to address the child care crisis.

“It’s going to take child care providers, it’s going to take families, it’s going to take the state and it’s going to take the business community working together to make sure that we solve this issue,” she said.

Corches is hopeful the tax credit package legislation’s fate last year is not going to be repeated. She urged business leaders in attendance at the chamber event to make their voices heard.

“This bill was teed up to pass last year and on the last week of session, a small group of senators held up every bill from passing,” she said, referring to filibusters and other actions. “So, that’s kind of our roadblock again this year. But it really is going to take all of us, all of us going to our legislators, going to leadership saying, ‘Hey, this is important to our community. Please, please get this passed this year.’”

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