Bryce Hunt counted down the days to July 12. That’s the day her daughter started going to the new on-site child care center at her job.
“As soon as they posted it, I enrolled her and was super excited,” said Hunt, who works as a customer success director at Podium, a company that provides a communication and payments platform for businesses.
Podium opened its child care center, Little Founders, this summer at its Lehi headquarters to help employees be able to stay in, or return to, the workforce, according Katie Morrow, senior director of people operations.
In Hunt’s eyes, “The day care center will benefit everyone, all parents of Podium. But particularly as a woman, I feel like I felt some of the pains that other women have felt when trying to reenter the workforce after having children.”
That’s what motivated Chris Gibson, CEO and co-founder of Recursion Pharmaceuticals, to launch an on-site child care center in July for his employees working in The Gateway in Salt Lake City.
When Gibson and his wife were preparing for the birth of their child nearly a decade ago, they found it difficult to obtain child care, running into waitlists everywhere they turned. If they hadn’t found an opening, Gibson said, he isn’t sure he would have been able to take the leap and start the biotech company.
“It felt very helpless,” Gibson previously told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Utah’s current system was meeting only about a third of the need for child care in the state, according to a report from the Office of Child Care. The problem was amplified during the spread of COVID-19, as parents — especially mothers — struggled to juggle caregiving responsibilities with work when day care facilities and schools were closed.
Even as many employees continue to work remotely, executives at Recursion and Podium said they still felt this was the right time to open their centers, which had been in the works since before the pandemic.
“If anything, I actually think we learned through COVID that the need for high-quality, stimulating, safe places for our children were even more in demand than they were pre-pandemic,” Morrow said, as parents searched for alternate options. “This definitely filled that gap for them.”
Starting a child care center may not be feasible for every business, said Marin Christensen, vice president of Utah Child Care Cooperative, an organization focused on child care solutions, but there are options for companies to consider.
“There’s so many different things,” Christensen said. “And just the bare minimum is continuing to allow flexible schedules and remote options, if they need it.”
‘It’s really life-changing’
The pandemic hit mere months after their daughter, June, was born in October 2019, leading Hunt and her husband, who were both working from home, to hire a nanny to watch their daughter.
”There were definitely pros and cons,” Bryce Hunt said.
Paying a nanny was more expensive than sending June to a facility, she said, and if the nanny got sick, “there’s not much you can do.” With June getting older and needing more social interaction, being able to take her to a child care center at work became a better fit.
“I’ve said this time and time again,” Hunt stated, “It’s really life-changing.”
Recursion and Podium partnered with Bright Horizons, a U.S. provider of employer-sponsored child care that also has some global locations, to run their centers.
“We are not child care experts, and we didn’t want to be,” Podium’s Morrow said. “We wanted to focus on what we were good at,” and then partner with an organization that was skilled in early childhood education.
When Recursion held a “soft open” this summer, asking some of its more than 300 employees who had been working remotely to return to the office, company leaders wanted to time that with the opening of its child care center, available for children in infancy through 5 years old, said Heather Kirkby, chief people officer. Seeing how Bright Horizons operated during the pandemic, she said, made Recursion leaders feel they could do this safely.
In addition to serving their own employees, Recursion and Podium opened up their centers to other nearby businesses. Podium — which has 1,000 employees, about 80% of whom work in Utah — has space for 50 children, ages 6 weeks through 5 years old. By design, the center is not operating at capacity, so that spaces are available for neighboring companies and new employees as Podium grows, according to Morrow. The company took this step “to ensure that ... we were being generous with the resources we had.”
Podium also partially subsidized its child care for its employees.
“The cost of child care is really expensive,” Morrow said, “and often one of the biggest burdens for new parents when making the decision to return to work or to stay home with their children. And so we just wanted to offset that and reduce that barrier in any way we could.”
How other businesses can help with child care
No matter the size or location, there are ways for employers to help their workers access child care, said Christensen, of Utah Child Care Cooperative.
“Not every business is going to be OK with absorbing that liability of an on-site day care and child care,” she said. “And so there are many very skilled, high-quality providers already in Utah that have a great business sense that are ready to expand. They just need a partnership.”
A business can help a provider with the cost of land or a lease, she said. Companies could provide a subsidy for employees or pursue flex spending accounts and tax incentives. Christensen also recommends that businesses do a needs assessment to help figure out what might be best for employees.
“Whatever option works best for your company now, it’s going to attract and retain employees,” Christensen said.
“To draw on a cliche, we live in unprecedented times,” Kirkby said. “But you know what? It doesn’t feel like that’s going to change anytime soon.
“Employers have to think way more holistically about how they help their employees be successful broadly in the context of life,” she added, “which will then help them be successful ... in the context of work.”
Morrow said, “Even our employees that don’t use the center, I think there’s a shared sense of collective pride for working for a company that’s willing to actually make an investment in ... solving a hard problem for our community.”
If business owners are considering going the on-site child care route, Kirkby has two recommendations: First, bring “unwavering commitment from the top,” because “then everything else is infinitely easier.” She also said it helps to partner with a child care provider that already has the knowledge and experience of how to run a center.
Morrow suggests “starting early” because it is “a long process,” and the steps for licensing and certification are “complex and time-consuming.”
Like Morrow and Kirkby, Hunt said other companies in Utah should “100%” do what Podium and Recursion have done.
“If we’re able to do anything we can to help keep women in the workforce, help them progress through management, into leadership, then we need to be doing it,” she said. “It is a very expensive investment, but I think it will pay off.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.