A pilot child care program expansion will help West Michigan parents find affordable child care, tackling one factor that has contributed to labor shortages and employees’ difficulty returning to work.
Launched in 2021, the MI Tri-Share Child Care program divides child care costs between lower-wage parents, their employer and the state. The program now reaches 52 of Michigan’s 83 counties, plus the City of Detroit, through seven new “facilitator hubs” run by local nonprofits, including Vibrant Futures in Kent County and Southwest Child Care Resources in Kalamazoo County. These nonprofits will recruit employers and eligible employees, and serve as the link between parents, employers and child care providers.
The program was backed by a coalition of business organizations, child care providers, advocacy groups and legislators assembled by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in 2019.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of available child care services has been a contributing factor to staffing shortages across industries. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently recommended in her fiscal year budget that starts on Oct. 1 this year that $2.5 million go toward expanding the pilot. The state has previously allocated nearly $3.5 million to launch the Tri-Share program.
Consistent and quality child care creates stability for parents and employers, said Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan. The association released a statement in support of the continued Tri-Share funding, adding the program is a “game changer.”
“The child care crisis is greatly impacting Michigan’s small businesses as employees with young children struggle to find quality care,” Calley said.
Competing for talent
Vibrant Futures CEO Chana Edmond-Verley said joining the Tri-Share program can give businesses a competitive edge. In the race to secure talent, potential employees hold leverage with the ability to weigh options when choosing an employer.
“(Employees) are beginning to call the facilitator hub to make a decision about which employer they will accept the (job) offer from, and they are leaning toward those who are participating in Tri-Share,” Edmond-Verley said.
The Tri-Share program can also help employers retain existing employees in need of child care solutions, Edmond-Verley said.
To qualify for the Tri-Share program, employees of participating businesses must have an income between 185 percent and 285 percent of the federal poverty level. Employees eligible for Michigan’s child care subsidy cannot participate in the Tri-Share program.
Employee participants will also be able to keep their chosen care provider. Facilitator hubs will work with them and their employer to pay the chosen provider, said April Goodwin, executive director of Southwest Child Care Resources.
As a new hub, the nonprofit is connecting with interested employers and their workers, Goodwin said. From there, Goodwin’s team ensures providers will participate in the program. The hub is partnering with the Edison Early Childhood Education Career Pathway to connect with smaller employers as well, Goodwin said.
Vibrant Futures has also partnered with Talent 2025 and the West Michigan Works! business solutions team to recruit employers, Edmond-Verley said.
“We’ve got the big players at the table, that champion workforce and economic development growth in this area, to work with us to get to employers to begin to onboard them quickly,” Edmond-Verley said.
The Tri-Share program not only helps parents in general, but particularly women who are primary caregivers and others who are child care professionals, Edmond-Verley said.
“The other thing that’s powerful about this is the labor participation rates that have declined significantly during this pandemic for women who decide to step out of the workforce, and their dreams of pursuing a career,” Edmond-Verley said, adding that child care businesses are largely owned by women who can benefit from the program’s engagement of their services. One in every 55 working women make a living in early childhood education and care, according to a September 2021 U.S. Department of the Treasury report on child care.
Research also has shown that women have been slower than men to return to the workforce during the pandemic and are more often held back by child care access complications. They are also likely dissuaded from returning to frontline positions with low pay. Since the start of the pandemic, men have also experienced faster growth in wage index and hiring volume than women, according to research published in November 2021 by the Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Without the Tri-Share program, some employees can’t afford to work full-time, Goodwin said. Staying home may be more affordable when infant care costs only 12.7-percent less per year than in-state tuition at a four-year public college in Michigan, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Michigan parents can expect to pay $905 per month for infant care and $741 per month for a 4-year-old child, the same data show.
“It’s just not balancing out,” Goodwin said. “We have a lot of employees dropping out and staying home, or they’re doing something else so they can make their bills.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has caused some child care providers to close or reduce staff, resulting in fewer available child care options, Goodwin said. Parents who lost their job or worked from home either did not need or could not afford child care, reducing child care professionals’ income. Across the U.S., the child care industry was 83 percent smaller in October 2020 than in February 2020 before the pandemic began, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury, highlighting the stress the early pandemic placed on the child care industry.
As parents return to the workforce, participating in the Tri-Share program offers child care professionals both business opportunities and an ability to hire and retain more quality staff.
While facilitator hubs recruit employers, it is up to businesses to decide which employees can join the pilot, Goodwin said. Once chosen employees apply, the facilitator hub works to verify their eligibility. The hub then helps parents and employers establish a payment plan. Finally, the facilitator hub pays the child care provider.
The program offers a win-win for employers to retain staff and employees to get back to full-time work, Edmond-Verley said. But it also offers a third win: High quality care for children.
“Our children, them having access to significant, more formal (and) high quality child care helps boost that brain and develop our workforce for tomorrow,” Edmond-Verley said.
MI Tri-Share facilitator hubs
In mid February, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that seven organizations statewide would serve as facilitator hubs for the MI Tri-Share pilot program. These organizations act as intermediaries between employers, families and child care providers to bolster child care access for workers. The program now covers 52 counties and the city of Detroit through the following hubs:
- Child Care Network serving Washtenaw County
- Marquette-Alger RESA serving all of the Upper Peninsula
- Otsego County Economic Alliance Inc. serving six counties in the northern Lower Peninsula
- Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership serving Shiawassee County
- Southwest Child Care Resources serving Kalamazoo County
- St. Clair RESA serving St. Clair County
- Vibrant Futures serving Kent County
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