As lack of available child care worsens amid COVID-19, employers are called on to support working families


Timberline Learning Center co-teacher Leah Tharp plays with Fischer Dineen at the preschool in Breckenridge on Friday, Jan. 8. Following the March 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, child care centers were not permitted to reopen until May 11, 2020. Many waited until June to open.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

*Editor’s note: The photo in this story has been updated with the correct name of Fischer Dineen.

The Summit Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11, to discuss the child care issues Summit County faces, as well as potential solutions.

Chamber Executive Director Blair McGary pointed out the lack of consistent, affordable child care in the community, which has only worsened as a result of the pandemic. Nicole Riehl, president and CEO of the Colorado nonprofit Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, talked about ways employers can help their employees manage child care.

McGary stated that child care, the local workforce and the economy are all connected. She noted that while the community faced child care issues before the pandemic, they have only been exacerbated.

“We know that child care has long been an issue in our community and one that has really just been highlighted through the pandemic as the effects have just been absolutely devastating on our workforce,” McGary said. “Going through quarantines and remote learning, school closures, there has been a lot of obstacles that our workforce has had to overcome, and child care has certainly been one of those barriers.”

McGary noted that the community recognizes the economic impact child care has, and it has invested in early childhood education through voter approved funding for affordable child care services. She said that while this has helped, there is still a lack of local child care that has caused people to drop out of the workforce. Riehl explained the importance of early childhood development beyond child care needs and pointed out that while there are 1,310 children under 5 years old in Summit County, there were only 830 licensed child care slots before the pandemic. With different capacity limits in the past year the number of slots may have been lowered.

“Our economic development really begins with early childhood development,” Riehl said. “We know that early childhood has one of the best returns on investments that we could make when it comes to investing our dollars publicly. Children who have quality early learning and early childhood experiences have an increase in graduation levels, they show greater propensity to achieve self sufficiency and economic mobility down the road and also greater career success.”

Riehl noted the economic impact of a lack of child care. She stated that according to a study conducted by the Council for a Strong America, 79% of parents reported adverse impacts on their efforts or commitments at work due to child care problems. As a result of infant and toddler care shortages, $13.6 million in earnings, productivity and revenue have been lost in Summit County annually.

Catherine Schaaf, program director of Early Childhood Options, listed the challenges the pandemic has brought, including outbreak closures, teachers operating classrooms under pandemic restrictions and increased sanitation duties, and parents having to work from home with young children. She also noted the high cost of quality child care, which is about $1,600 per month for infant and toddler care five days per week. Schaaf added that tuition support is offered to 35% of families with children ages 0-5 through various local and state programs, including Summit Head Start and the Colorado Preschool Program. While child care was already expensive, Schaaf noted that running child care centers has become even more expensive due to COVID-19.

“A majority of (child care businesses) are nonprofits,” Schaaf said. “They’ve seen an increased cost of operating business due to closures, quarantines and additional mandated paid time off, and increased pandemic supplies.”

Unsurprisingly, enrollment in child care declined as a result of closures, but the centers have struggled to return to full capacity due to teacher availability, which is a challenge both because of quarantines and a general local workforce shortage. Schaaf noted that 11 of the 14 local centers are currently back to full capacity.

Riehl listed some of the things employers can do to help their employees manage child care responsibilities, including smaller things like allowing schedule flexibility and creating a culture that supports working families.

“For a lot of business leaders, we know that it may not be a time where a business can invest in child care solutions, for example, right now,” Riehl said. “Maybe this is something that from an investment perspective you think about down the road, but there are some easy, what I call ‘quick wins,’ that we can talk about with regards to how employers can make sure they’re doing their best to support their employees, retain them and make sure that it’s a supportive environment.”

Pre-pandemic, Riehl said that it was considered taboo for an employee to bring their child into the office, but with kids popping up in Zoom calls, kids in the workplace have become more normalized. She said that company managers should be clear on how special accommodations given to working families will be handled when it comes to things like performance reviews, and noted that parents might be afraid to ask for accommodations if they’re worried it will be seen negatively down the line. Riehl also said that companies should regularly seek employee feedback and ideas on how to manage child care.

During the Q&A section of the meeting, a participant asked what options there are for small businesses who want to take an active role in supporting child care but can’t afford to build their own facility. Riehl suggested a partnership with a local child care facility where the business supports the center financially in some way to hold slots for its own employees.

“To retain the workforce, people want to know that they can live (in Summit County),” Riehl said. “If you have someone considering a position and you’re able to say, ‘We’ve partnered with a local early childhood program, we have slots set aside and we’re willing to pay for X percentage of the cost of child care,’ that’s still a huge plus for a lot of families and can offset other expenses that we know that they’re going to have. On the flip side, having private sector investment and having employers and businesses involved to support access to child care also helps our early education businesses.”

McGary closed by acknowledging that the burden of child care is typically put on the employee, but rethinking this and asking employers to take on some of the responsibility could help remedy child care needs in the community.

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