A human resources professional at Hydro Flask, Ryan Combellick knows more about running a day care than the average father of a 9-month-old.

Taking part in a task force convened by the Bend Chamber of Commerce to address a shortage of child care, Combellick learned that day care centers and parents looking to hire nannies actually compete for the same qualified people.

A lack of labor is one of many barriers to adding more spots for young children in Deschutes County, which Oregon State University has identified as a child care desert.

“It will take a full-force effort to increase the amount of slots … in Central Oregon, or anywhere across the country,” Bend Chamber CEO Katy Brooks said. “That is a tall order.”

Hydro Flask and other employers want to ease the child care burden because it affects their ability to hire and keep talent, Brooks said. But it has become clear no one is going to find a solution on their own. That’s why she’s trying to raise $100,000 to fund a “child care accelerator” program, which would include a full-time staff member.

The chamber has already lined up $40,000 with help from child-focused nonprofits and hopes to advertise the position this summer, Brooks said.

Brooks envisions the accelerator program connecting employers, the public sector, philanthropists and investors.

Like most of Oregon, Deschutes County has at least three children 5 or younger for every available child care spot, according to an Oregon State University study. In Deschutes County, 20% of young children have access to child care.

“What we’re experiencing here in Bend is not unique,” Brooks said. Yearlong waitlists for infant care are common across the country, she said. After attending an early childhood education strategy session in Atlanta with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Brooks said the good news is that the Bend Chamber seems to be on the right track with its approach.

The child care accelerator has a number of ideas to bring to fruition.

One of the leading concepts is to create a pool of employers who would commit to funding a certain number of slots in a new day care center, Brooks said. Those commitments could help a day care provider secure the rest of its financing, she said.

Airports trying to lure new service follow a similar model of guaranteeing revenue, Brooks noted. “It’s a tried and true thing,” she said.

Another possibility is creating a child care center on the campus of Central Oregon Community College or Oregon State University-Cascades, Brooks said. Both colleges have an interest and available land, she said. “The issue is money.”

A third possibility is to create a child care center in a federally designated opportunity zone, which allows investors to defer and reduce taxes on capital gains, Brooks said.

Companies like Patagonia that provide child care on-site have documented the benefits in terms of retaining and recruiting employees. Only 7% of U.S. employers provide day care on-site or nearby, according to a Society for Human Resource Management study of employers.

Day care isn’t a business Hydro Flask wants to pursue on its own, Combellick said. “We do think there’s potential for businesses locally to come together and collectively do something.”

As Central Oregon’s largest private employer with more than 4,100 employees, St. Charles Health System deals with a lack of child care by being flexible.

“We’ve tried to find creative ways to work around it,” said Rebecca Berry, vice president of human resources.

Women with babies at home often drop from full-time to relief positions, so they can pick up a few shifts on a flexible schedule, Berry said. Employees with nontraditional hours can work schedules opposite their spouses.

The lack of care is a problem for St. Charles, which has participated in the chamber’s task force, Berry said. It means losing full-time workers, and it’s a common reason that people aren’t available to cover for coworkers on short notice.

A nurse case manager, Abby Barnes said that when she was expecting her youngest child, now 16 months old, she couldn’t find a day care center willing to even add him to the waitlist. Fortunately she works part-time, and her parents were willing to babysit. But now they want to move to the Portland area.

So Barnes is deciding whether to recruit other family members, or hire a nanny. “I feel more comfortable relying on family,” she said.

The greatest shortage in care is for children younger than 2, and that’s because it’s the most difficult business to run, said Kara Tachikawa, executive director of Inspire Early Learning Centers. Oregon requires one caregiver for every four children in that age group, Tachikawa said. Inspire charges $1,210 a month for full-time infant care. Preschool programs offset the cost of infant and toddler care, she said.

Most of the providers who participate in the task force work out of their homes but want to take the step of opening a small day care center, Tachikawa said. It costs at least $100,000 to furnish a large center like Inspire, she said.

Even if the financing is available, it’s almost impossible to find a landlord willing to lease to a child care center, Tachikawa said. “I think there are a lot of perceived risks,” she said.

Tachikawa thinks the most realistic solution is expanding the capacity of home-based day care. But she knows parents have reservations, especially after hearing about January Neatherlin, a Bend day care provider who left infants alone in her home while she tanned and worked out.

There are high-quality options in home-based care, Tachikawa said.

Barnes said the prospect of leaving her child in a stranger’s home raises too many questions in her mind. “Who else is going to be there?” she said. “I’ve seen too much of the news to really be openly trusting of everyone.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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