‘Workforce behind the workforce’: Businesses, organizations tackle child care in new program

By: - November 14, 2022 1:12 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The child care crisis is, above all else, a workforce crisis in South Dakota.

Gov. Kristi Noem addressed it as such on the campaign trail, and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Tenhaken says its one of the most common issues presented to him in recent years. 

But it hasn’t been treated as a “crisis” by businesses or state and local governments until recently, said Kayla Klein, executive director with Early Learner South Dakota.

Child care providers across the state have struggled for years to keep their rooms staffed, their doors open and their rates affordable.

The COVID pandemic brought the issue to a head when child care providers closed temporarily on and off during the pandemic. Businesses were left without workers as parents chose to stay home or forgo the workplace altogether because of rising child care costs.

The issue persists today.

“Child care is the workforce behind the workforce,” Klein said.

It’s impossible to have a strong workforce in South Dakota without supporting child care providers, Klein said, since more than 75% of children are in families with working parents. There are only enough licensed and registered child care providers in the state to satisfy 64% of the need.

Collaborative aims for solutions

Businesses, local chambers of commerce and others are now part of the conversation.

Posed photo of a woman holding a truck with text saying, "Child care is part of America's infrastructure." (Nancy Andrews/Oxfam)
More than 75% of children are in families with working parents. There are only enough licensed and registered child care providers in the state to satisfy 64% of the need. (Nancy Andrews/Oxfam)

South Dakota is one of nine states to take part in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood and Business Advisory Council. Each state brings together local chambers of commerce with key stakeholders, including state and local early childhood advocates, business owners and state administrators, to search for solutions in communities where barriers to child care exist.

South Dakota’s Child Care Business Collaborative will launch its first meetings on Dec. 8 at Avera Health in Sioux Falls and Dec. 20 at Elevate Rapid City.

The meetings will focus on the child care landscape and child care’s unprofitable business models. They’ll also explore possible solutions and efforts already underway in urban areas like Rapid City and Sioux Falls and rural areas like the 300-person town of Bison.

Some examples include creating space for on-site daycare at business offices or businesses paying a portion of their employees’ child care fees directly to the provider as a benefit.

“Businesses want to find solutions just as much, if not more, than the child care field,” Klein said.

Partners explore childcare benefits

Avera Health is one of South Dakota’s largest employers. Lindsey Meyers, vice president of communications, said the organization is attending because “quality, consistent child care is important to many working parents who choose careers in healthcare.” Over 80% of Avera employees are women, in a state that has the highest percentage of working mothers.

“We want to infuse conversations with the perspectives of our health care employees as hospitals and long-term care centers are open 24/7/365,” Meyers said in an emailed statement. “Parents need the support of child care, so they can concentrate their attention on caring for our patients while they are at work, knowing their children are in good hands.”

Graphic that says '79% of South Dakota mothers with children under age 6 are working." (Courtesy of Early Learner SD)
79% of South Dakota mothers with children under age 6 are working. (Courtesy of Early Learner SD)

The healthcare system offers family benefits, paid time off packages and a minimum of $17 an hour pay. Meyers hopes to share information with businesses and learn from others during the collaborative process.

At the state level, the Department of Social Services awarded $32 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to over 600 child care providers in the state in early 2022, and the department is working on plans for another $38 million allotted to the DSS during the last legislative session. Gov. Kristi Noem met with child care providers across the state this summer to discuss challenges they face and solutions the state government can bring to the table at the 2023 legislative session.

It’s worth noting, Klein added, that there isn’t a state department dedicated to early learning for children ages 0 to 5.

“DSS handles child care licensing, federal flow through subsidies and, to some degree, quality. The DOE handles birth to 3 years in special needs, but this is the only involvement before 5,” Klein said. “There’s no one in the government dedicated to looking out for all kids prenatal to age 5.”

That’s where businesses can step up, she said.

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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.