Infant and toddler child care in northern Michigan is scarce — can employers help?

Feb 17, 2020

Finding child care for infants and toddlers is nearly impossible in northern Michigan. 


That’s because there’s not enough slots or workers to meet the demand. Some large employers like Munson Healthcare are trying to fill the gap.

 

Companies search for options

The Hagerty Group in Traverse City employs roughly 800 people locally. More than 50 percent of its workforce is under the age of 40, and the company is aware of the child care shortage.

“We obviously recognize that this is a big issue and the demographic of our employees is young,” says Gretchen Overbeek, vice president of human resources at Hagerty. 

Her team called area child care facilities to research the issue.

“We wanted to better understand the shortage and the need,” she says.

They found there’s a huge demand for infant and toddler care, but offering child care to employees is costly and has tons of regulations.  Plus, there’s not enough licensed workers to take care of kids.

 

“And that is what prompted us to really put more weeks into our maternity leave. In addition, it prompted us to think about that phased return to work,” Overbeek says.

Hagerty says it’s hard to say if it will eventually open a child care facility.

“It’s hard to pin down when and what we would do. As you can imagine, it’s a huge financial outlay, so just making sure it's the right time for our employee group,” says Overbeek.

For now, Hagerty extended its paid maternity leave from six weeks to 12. It offers other perks, like a free car seat to new parents. It also offers a mentor program for moms, a wellness class and a maternity phased to return work plan.

Britten Inc. in Traverse City also is trying to figure out what to do. 

The company has looked into opening an onsite child care facility. But, also found there aren’t enough workers, says Britten Director of HR, Jennifer Flick.

“There’s not that many people who want to do it,” Flick says.

The pay isn’t great. It’s around 11 to 13 dollars an hour, and it’s stressful. So what would help Britten?

“A partner,” Flick says.

She says they are looking for a child care facility to work with. The company reached out to Traverse City Area Public Schools to see if northern Michigan’s largest district wants to expand their child care. 

However, TCAPS assistant superintendent of finance and operations Christine Thomas-Hill says they have enough staffing problems.  

“If we had more workers, more credentialed staff, we’d be able to offer more. We’d like to be able to offer more,” Thomas-Hill says. “But the fact of the matter is, we have openings that we’ve had since the beginning of the school year that we’re filling with substitutes because we can’t find people.”

Munson expands its child care

Munson has offered child care to its employees for 28 years, including infant and toddler care. It partnered with Northwestern Michigan College four years ago to expand its program. 

   

Also, earlier this month, Munson opened a new daycare with 110 new slots, adding to the nearly 500 slots it already has throughout the region. The new center will take 24 infants and 24 toddlers. 

Munson’s Child Care Director Bridgid Wilson says businesses should consider it. 

“To have onsite child care for employees is just priceless. We have nursing moms that come back to work on their break and spend time with their children and nurse them,” she says. “It just really helps build a healthy bond from birth.”

 

The need is huge

Mary Manner is the Great Start Collaborative coordinator for Venture North. She says there’s enough daycare for kids aged two to four years old. She estimates that there are roughly 460 infants and toddlers in the region who need care.

And the costs are huge. Parents find themselves paying more than $1,200 a month. 

“People are paying as much for infant care as you would be paying to send your college student to college for one year,” she says. 

That’s just not affordable, she adds. 

And it's not enough to keep daycare in business, apparently.

Last week, Angel Care Preschool and Child care announced it’s closing its Old Mission facility.

The problem? Not enough staff, says Angel Care Executive Director Karin Cooney.

“I can’t do it anymore. I can’t make employees work so hard and so long and shuffle so much. It’s just not good for the kids,” she says. 

The upcoming closure will eliminate 12 slots for infants and toddlers. 

Cooney will merge the closed facility staff and kids with an Angel Care center in Traverse City. 

The site on Old Mission was a new effort to add more child care. It opened in 2018. It will close in June.

For now, Manner will continue to work with the business community throughout the region to solve the problem.

 

What's next?

 

In Leelanau County, an effort called “Boots on the ground” is working with the Leelanau Early Childhood Development Commission, the Leelanau League of Women Voters, the Leelanau Township Community Foundation, and Northport and Suttons Bay schools who are trying to figure out how to provide care for infants, Manner says.

 

Benzie County has the “Advocates for Benzie County and the Betsie Valley Community Center organization are among two groups who are actively working on improving access to care, along with Benzie Central and Frankfort/Elberta schools and Paul Oliver Hospital,” she says.

 

Grand Traverse County Venture North Funding & Development contracted is doing a microstudy of child care in the four-county region — Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau — to figure out the problem.  

 

“The Great Start Collaborative and 5toONE are convening a group of child care providers who come together to discuss shared services options for the region,” Manner said in an email.  

 

It’s working on developing an online waitlist for infant/toddler care for the five-county region. They’re hoping to launch it in six months.