A senior economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) says more than 20,000 Montana parents are unable to fully return to the workforce because of a lack of sufficient childcare, a problem that is not new but one that was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A statewide survey of more than 1,600 businesses released by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) in November — and based on results collected before March 31, 2020 — paints a gloomy picture for young parents who are hoping to further their careers while raising their children and the businesses that rely on those employees to survive.
Amy Watson, a senior economist at the DLI who authored the study and summarized its findings, found that 57% of Montana businesses believe their community has a shortage of affordable childcare options, that 40% of businesses have experienced “difficulty recruiting or retaining qualified workers” because of childcare issues, that 30% believe the lack of childcare has stagnated their company’s growth, and that many parts of the state, including Flathead County, are severely lacking licensed providers. That only worsened during the pandemic, when 43% of Montana childcare providers had to at least temporarily close their doors last April.
In Flathead County, licensed providers can meet only 33% of the county’s estimated demand, well below the state’s other largest counties — Missoula (66%), Cascade (64%), Yellowstone (54%), Gallatin (48%), Silver Bow (48%) and Lewis and Clark (45%) — and reflective of what local businesses are seeing.
“It has been a problem and I think it’s been exacerbated by COVID,” Lorraine Clarno, the president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said. “The overall costs and the lack (of care) is a big concern that our board members share from their employees.”
The simultaneous challenges of a lack of care and the cost of care are at least somewhat related, Watson said. Childcare workers are sometimes making little more than minimum wage, so recruiting new people into the workforce is a challenge that, in turn, makes it difficult for facilities to fill in the gaps in care. And the high cost of care, which one study put at $12,750 a year for the average infant in Montana, is forcing some parents, mostly women and especially those with more than one young child, to consider whether working full-time only to turn around and spend that income on childcare is worthwhile.
“It’s a worse choice today, for sure, than when I was having kids,” Jerry Meerkatz, the president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development (MWED), said. “I didn’t feel forced at all. You and your spouse could decide what made the most sense for you … but there was never a feeling that we had to worry about the expense of childcare.”
While legislative changes could be coming, particularly at the federal level, some businesses have taken it upon themselves to address the issue. The DLI study reported that 59% of businesses offered some kind of flexible scheduling for employees (like working four, 10-hour shifts or working during non-business hours) and 10% allowed for remote work, a number that has most certainly risen since the start of the pandemic.
And some more creative potential solutions to the problem have been on display elsewhere in Montana, with a small number of companies either offering their own care or subsidizing all or part of their employees’ expenses. In other communities, businesses have come together to form a co-op and create daycare for their workers, an idea Clarno said she would be interested in exploring in the Flathead Valley.
Meerkatz, who works closely with Clarno on this and other economic issues in the valley, said recruiting childcare professionals or national childcare companies to the area could be on the horizon as well.
“Our next goal has got to be bringing in a professional daycare organization, recruiting some folks to come in and provide that and maybe what that leads to is how can (MWED) help not just recruit that talent here but find a place for it,” Meerkatz said. “It’s something that has to be put on the docket to talk about.”
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