Katy Brooks

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Central Oregon’s child care shortage means lost opportunities for families, employers and our economy. Employers are scrambling for talent and thousands of employees have limited availability, or out of the market because they can’t find quality child care. This is a real problem with a complicated resolution that requires commitment and investment from employers, landowners and our state.

In Central Oregon parents can wait for more than a year to find an opening for their infant. In a recent survey of Bend Chamber of Commerce members, a whopping 97 percent of employees have had difficulty finding child care. Imagine the challenge of balancing a career, or simply making a living to support your family and there are simply no options. It happens every day in Central Oregon. Just ask a provider who gets inundated daily with desperate inquiries from parents trying to work.

Lack of child care impacts the workforce in several ways. It is an equity issue for women, who still take on most of the stay-at-home parenting, and for those who are economically constrained and want to seek more financial opportunity while raising their families. There is growing data that makes the direct correlation between exiting employment in early and mid-career, and decreased lifetime income.

Affordability of child care is also a big part of the problem. Our survey showed that 42 percent of employees say at least a quarter of their income goes to child care. More than 20 percent of employees spend at least half their paychecks to find safe, quality care for their children while they work.

This is also devastating to businesses and employers. More than 76 percent of employers say child care is an important issue to their company that affects productivity, attendance, retention and recruitment. The lack of child care hurts smaller businesses the worst. Almost 80 percent of the companies surveyed have between 0 – 50 employees. That’s a huge segment of Central Oregon’s economy.

To solve this problem for our businesses and families we must address the barriers for more child care facilities of all sizes.

Providers seeking to open or expand are faced with a highly competitive market where property owners lease to tenants who can afford higher leases that most child care businesses can’t afford. If providers want to build their own facility, property prices are out of reach.

The regulatory requirements and tenant improvements, though important, set huge financial barriers to starting new quality child care businesses. And finally, providers are faced with limited resources to pay their employees, resulting in low-wage jobs and high turnover.

For more than a year a cross-industry task force has worked on finding solutions.

We have engaged employers, brokers and property owners, our local and higher education institutions, investors, state and local governments to help find ways to increase availability of quality child care in our region. One result of this group’s effort included a two-year reduction on city of Bend transportation system development charges for child care centers to help reduce startup costs. We are exploring funding options, employer participation, business development training for providers and other incentives.

The bottom line is that it will take a collaborative approach to address this growing problem and a commitment to increasing a full range of child care in our region. Our employers are desperate for labor and talent, and our families need quality child care to bring them into the workforce. This really will take a village.

Katy Brooks is CEO of the Bend Chamber of Commerce.