For more than a decade, employees at Hawaii First Federal Credit Union on the Big Island have enjoyed an unusual job perk: the ability to take their newborn children to work with them full time until the child is 6 months old. 

Struggling To Get By project badgeSo far, nearly two dozen children have spent the first months of their life tucked into bassinets at teller windows and in private offices at the credit union’s two branches. The next child is due to arrive later this month. 

Letting parents bring their infants to work — and enlisting the support of fellow coworkers to step in when a child is fussy and their parent is with a customer — is the bank’s scrappy solution to a pressing problem facing workers in Hawaii: the lack of affordable child care in the islands. 

“This is a really non-traditional way that we felt the company could provide support to our new parents,” says Mary Ann Otake, chief operating officer of the credit union and a mother of three. “And they really embraced it.” 

Jasmine Juan-Leong is one of many Hawaii First Federal Credit Union workers who have brought their infants to work with them through the credit union’s innovative child care policy. Courtesy: Hawaii First Federal Credit Union

Hawaii, like most states, has a child care crisis. Putting a child in daycare can eat up as much as 29% of an average worker’s salary — the worst child care cost burden in the nation. There’s also a dearth of available spaces, with roughly four times as many children under the age of 5 as there are child care seats

Employer-provided child care could ease the struggles of working families, while also improving worker retention and productivity. But despite significant federal tax incentives for employers, there are still very few companies in the state that offer child care benefits to workers. 

Setting up on-site daycare can be an expensive and difficult undertaking. There are licensing requirements. Insurance costs. A slew of considerations that can deter even the most well-intentioned employers. 

But there are other creative ways that companies can help young families. From offering flexible schedules and letting employees bring their children to work to offering pre-tax child care benefits, partnering with nonprofits to help match workers with existing child care sites in the community and offering backup child care benefits — something corporations like Best Buy and McDonald’s are now starting to do. 

And the state could do a lot more to incentivize and support employers in plugging the state’s child care gap. 

“There’s a lot of information and news out there right now about women leaving the workforce in droves,” said Daniella Cornue, owner of Le Village, a coworking space in Chicago with on-site child care for members. “There’s kind of this attitude right now of, ‘well, you know, we throw our hands up in the air and we don’t know what to do about it.’ But there’s actually a lot that we can do about it.”

A ‘Lot Of Red Tape’

There’s a growing interest among employers across the country in offering some type of child care benefit, but few have the experience and knowledge base to do so, says Nicole Riehl, president of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, a Colorado-based advocacy group that works with companies to analyze the child care needs of workers and help put solutions in place.

“The ‘how’ is almost the bigger barrier,” Riehl said. 

Riehl says EPIC is fielding calls on a weekly basis from employers in Colorado — a sign of how much interest in helping address child care is growing. Employer questions often center on things like how to get insurance and find an operations partner. How do companies protect themselves from liability and make sure they are creating a quality program? 

Carri Morgan, whose husband is a sixth-generation owner of Kualoa Ranch, took an early retirement from her job at Punahou in 2018 to work on setting up an on-site preschool for workers at the ranch. The ranch has about 300 employees, and child care options are limited in the rural stretch of Windward Oahu where Kualoa is located. 

Children in the Kualoa Ranch’s family engagement program work on learning to kilo — observe. Courtesy: Kualoa Ranch

Before leaving Punahou, she spent a year working with students as part of a design-thinking project at the private school interviewing workers about their child care needs, designing classroom spaces, and thinking through what a nature-based program for children at the ranch would look like. Morgan and her husband even visited the California headquarters of Patagonia to draw inspiration from the clothing retailer’s on-site day care program. 

Then the pandemic hit. 

The ranch closed for several months and furloughed most of its staff. To address the changing needs of parents at home with their children, Morgan hired an educator and launched an enrichment program for children at the ranch where parents or caregivers accompany kids for the six-week program. 

Having a parent or guardian stay with the child is also a way to get something up and running while the ranch continues to work on meeting the state licensing requirements to open a drop off daycare and preschool program. 

“There’s a lot of red tape,” Morgan said. 

It’s important for daycare and preschool sites to be well-regulated, Morgan points out. You want kids to be in a healthy, safe and enriching environment. “That being said, it is a complicated process, and it’s something where you have to keep your nose to the grindstone to get that permit.” 

One way that companies can get past some of the regulatory hurdles and logistic challenges is by partnering with an existing child care provider. Another is for advocacy or nonprofit groups to step in and help.  

Colorado is one of several states utilizing federal covid-relief funds this year to offer grants of up to $500,000 to companies willing to invest in on-site child care programs. (A bill introduced in Hawaii in 2018 to incentivize employers to provide child care did not go anywhere.)

To help support the grant, Colorado partnered with EPIC to run a design lab for companies interested in opening up a child care site. The lab walked companies through governance structures, facility selection and design, finding an operator, and building a financial model. Essentially demystifying all the pieces that go into providing child care. 

EPIC has gotten inquiries from government workers in half a dozen other states that are interested in replicating this model. Riehl says the group is looking at developing a toolkit to help other states implement this type of program for employers. 

It would be immensely helpful if Hawaii was able to provide some type of coaching and support to businesses trying to start child care programs for workers, said Kerrie Urosevich of Early Childhood Action Strategy.

Finding Creative Solutions

Kualoa’s goal is still to develop a full day, state-licensed preschool program. But Morgan says the popularity of its current family enrichment program shows that child care doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition for employers. 

“You don’t have to provide child care or a preschool,” Morgan said. “I think you can enrich your employees’ lives and their families just by reaching out and doing something more personal that engages them in the mission of your company.”

In addition to on site programs, there are pre-tax flexible spending accounts for dependent care that employers can set up for families and tax-free stipends that companies can contribute. Even taking the time to connect families with existing state resources can be helpful, said Saydee Pojas of INPEACE, the Institute for Native Pacific Education And Culture.

INPEACE, which also allows its staff to bring their small children into the office, has partnered with companies in the past to visit workplaces and provide information about financial assistance programs for child care in the state and how to find a quality day care program. 

Children play at Le Village Cowork in Chicago under the supervision of a teacher while their parents work nearby. Courtesy: Le Village Cowork/2022

Riehl in Colorado suggests smaller companies consider partnering up to create a child care service for employees. Or partnering with an outside group that already provides child care. McDonald’s recently announced that it is piloting a program to provide 10 days of emergency child care a year, a benefit the electronics retailer Best Buy also offers to employees by giving them credits to use at Care.com, a website that connects families with local babysitters and nannies. 

There are other creative ways to make the most of limited resources. 

McGee’s Scot-Irish Pub in South Carolina made national news last year when it started providing on-site child care to employees by hiring two college students to care for up to six children at a time in a converted dining room on site, and helped the restaurant stay fully staffed last year, a time when many restaurants have struggled to find workers. 

Le Village Cowork in Chicago has a slightly different model for providing on-site child care to members. It employs three teachers to work with young children, with the requirement that parents take their children during lunch and check in on them every three hours — stipulations that allow them to operate under different regulations than a full time drop-off site. 

Coming up with creative solutions is especially critical in the local business community in Hawaii, says Otake of First Hawaii Credit Union.

The credit union has been approached numerous times over the years by other companies in Hawaii interested in how the company makes its creative approach to child care work. But Otake said she knows of few companies that have actually followed through with implementing a policy like theirs.

“Managers need to kind of step away and say, ‘OK. this is really not traditional for this type of business, but you know, what is the benefit?’”

Otake personally benefited from the program: she kept her third child with her at work in 2014 and was able to nurse her baby for months longer than she had been able to with her older children. And there’s a business benefit too.

“We’ve seen members or customers want to join our credit union because of what they see we do for employees,” Otake said.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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