Mothers of young children are more likely to leave the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which found 9% of those with preschool-aged children left the workforce between January 2020 and January 2021, as did 8% of moms with children ages 6-12. Yet, only 1% of moms with children ages 13-17 left their jobs.
Many experts speculate that the lack of affordable childcare is the culprit. Nearly half of childcare providers closed their facilities during the COVID-19 shutdown, and 18% of childcare centers remain closed, according to a 2020 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. This has left many working parents of young children scrambling to find childcare.
Yet, in the south central New York town of Corning, working parents at Corning Inc., don’t have to rely on family members and neighbors to help them cobble together childcare because the company invests $2.5 million a year to fund five local community daycare centers that care for 400 children. Corning employees as well as community members have access to the centers, and pay on a sliding scale based on income.
Access to affordable, quality daycare has allowed Corning employees like Shelby Bierwiler, a senior finance analyst, to continue working during the pandemic. Her 5-year-old son, Wyatt, started attending the Corning-funded Erwin Child and Family Center, when he was 6-weeks-old. Now he is in kindergarten and attends Kids Adventure Club, a childcare program supported by Corning Inc., that provides care before and after school hours, and during school holidays. “These childcare programs have allowed me to focus on work because I know that Wyatt is being taken care of as well as learning, growing and having fun,” Bierwiler says.
Childcare is a “workforce enabler”
Corning first started funding daycare programs in the 1980s when its former CEO Amory Houghton (and late Republican Congressman) recognized that the company needed to provide quality childcare if it wanted to attract and retain top engineering talent, says Chris Sharkey, president of Corning Enterprises at Corning Inc. “Childcare is a workforce enabler,” she says.
Since 1980, this 170-year-old company has invested about $75 million in providing childcare, Sharkey says. While that might sound expensive, it would be more costly to lose talented employees because of the lack of childcare. “If this can help prevent some of that churn and help us attract the best talent, it’s money well spent,” Sharkey says. Corning employs 60,000 globally, including 7,000 in New York state.
Corning is hoping to open another daycare center that would be dedicated to infants to age 3 because, prior to COVID, there was a huge waiting list for that age group, including 145 children of Corning employees, Sharkey says. The lack of care for younger children started to become a recruiting issue for Corning even before the pandemic, she says. If the company wanted to recruit someone who was pregnant or had a newborn, that candidate would likely be told it would be five years before their child would have a place at the daycare. That realization would often result in the candidate declining the job offer, she says.
Because Corning is a manufacturing and tech company—among other things it makes the glass used for iPhone screen and vaccines vials—it is impossible for much of its workforce to work from home, Sharkey says. In addition, many of its employees move to Corning from other parts of the country or even the world so most families lack a family support network to help out with childcare.
Company support should be more than just monetary
Corning’s support is more than just financial, says Paula Detar, director of the Corning Children’s Center. “They are truly invested in the work we do,” she says. For instance, when the center couldn’t get enough PPE for staff in 2020, Corning stepped in to help. Corning’s support makes it possible for the center to provide staff development, benefits and annual raises, Detar says.
Guthrie Healthcare, which serves patients in Corning, NY, and Sayre, PA, reached out to Corning for advice on how to start its own childcare program several years ago. This summer, Guthrie built and opened Foundations Early Learning Center in Sayre, PA., in partnership with U-GRO Learning Centres in Ephrata, PA, and Discover the World Children’s Center in Sayre, PA. Guthrie made the $4.5 million dollar investment in the childcare center to provide a better work and life balance to its employees with young children, company officials say.
Funding the cost of new building is great but a daycare center needs more than that a building to thrive, says Peigi Cook, the retired director of Corning Children’s Center, who is currently helping to launch Foundations Early Learning Center. “More important is an understanding of early childhood education—what feels like, sounds like and requires,” Cook says. “Businesses don’t come with that understanding.”
Companies need to understand that quality daycare costs money and supports more than just mothers, Cook says. “It’s an investment in the community and employees, and economic development issue not just a feel good feminist issue.”
What other companies can do to support childcare
Not every company has the resources to build a daycare center or the ability to create an immediate partnership with a local center but there are several actions businesses can take to help provide affordable, quality care, Sharkey says.
If the company can’t help fund childcare, it can provide resources to help employees find care by connecting them to referral agencies run by local counties and municipalities, or contracting with services like TOOTRiS, an online platform for finding local, on-demand childcare in 22 states, Sharkey says.
Companies should evaluate whether a local daycare center would make a good partner and possibly “buying” slots at an existing daycare center to ensure that employees at least have access to emergency childcare, she says. Leadership can also consider making quarterly or annual donations to a local center to help them improve quality of care in exchange for several guaranteed daycare slots, she said.
Companies can also work with the local non-profit childcare resource and referral agency to create a grant program for local in-home daycares providers. For instance, Sharkey is working with the Chemung County Child Care Project to create a grant program for in-home daycare providers in Steuben County, where Corning Inc., is located, and nearby Chemung County. The program allows new providers to apply for funds to pay for items that would allow them to meet licensing requirements such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. “Even a modest investment of $500 can make a difference to an in-home provider,” she said.