As governors and mayors across the country evaluate public health criteria and data to inform how they reopen the economy, there’s a major data point that must also be considered: the availability of quality and affordable child care.
As the former chairman and CEO of Casey’s General Stores, the challenges around child care are not new to me. Casey’s operates over 2,000 convenience stores across 16 states, counting on more than 37,000 employees. With many employees working non-traditional hours, and a workforce that spans urban and rural settings, the challenges of child care are pervasive and complicated. During my tenure, I was proud to help establish a child development center at our headquarters in Ankeny, Iowa. The center not only provided quality care for the children of many of our employees, but also served as a tool to attract talent and increase retention while boosting morale, performance, and overall success. These results make sense, because child care is a critical element of a successful workforce.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our American workforce and child care sector have been in turmoil. For months, child care was primarily available to essential workers only. As businesses began to reopen and employees returned to work, many parents were faced with daunting questions about where they could afford to safely send their kids. As school districts now grapple with how schools can operate, we are facing another stress on the child care system. Traditionally, child care primarily serves our youngest kids, but, as K-12 schools operate virtually or students spend reduced time in the classroom, who is caring for those kids when they’re not at school?
Most child care providers are themselves small businesses and serve as a critical workforce support for all businesses, both big and small. Last year, the business-leader group ReadyNation released a report showing that the lack of access to quality child care, just for parents of infants and toddlers, costs the economy $57 billion a year. The health pandemic has put an immense strain on an already-fragile sector, and it’s estimated that one-third to one-half of providers may not reopen at all. For those that do, the reduction in revenue due to required smaller group sizes, coupled with increased costs for additional training and new health and safety standards and equipment, present a formidable challenge.
The CARES Act in April provided relief to child care providers in the form of additional and more flexible Child Care and Development Block Grant dollars and forgivable loans to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. While the CARES Act was a critical relief bill, it proved insufficient to meet the unique needs of the child care industry, particularly for home-based providers, which care for the majority of our nation’s children in child care settings. Congress needs to come together to enact a child care stabilization fund. Providers need access to direct grants that will allow them to pay their staff, cover fixed costs, operate with needed safety precautions, and sustain their businesses as parents return to work and school schedules evolve.
While many sectors of our economy have been adversely affected by the pandemic and are looking for relief, every sector also relies on the availability of child care to support their workforce to ensure that our nation’s children have a safe place to thrive.
We all must work together to address this crisis. Child care is essential to our economy, and our nation’s economic recovery depends on it.
Robert J. Myers is the retired chairman and CEO of Casey’s General Stores. He is a member of the ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood and resides in Ankeny.