Across South Carolina, demand for child care, especially flexible child care, remains a pressing need.
Last year, says Child Care Aware of America, a national resources and referral group, 216,000 married working mothers and 120,000 single working mothers in the state faced the challenge of holding down a job while finding child care.
By 2020, a new report from the group says, occupations requiring nonstandard schedules will see the most employment growth, making the hunt for available child care more problematic.
But for now, a slowly increasing number of employers and care centers are starting to make things easier for working parents.
Job-based child care remains a rarity, but it has proved beneficial to both employers and employees.
In 1973, sensing a need to better recruit and retain staff in critical areas like nursing, administrators at Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System distributed questionnaires across its workforce and found that 80 families had an interest in child care. A child development center opened one year later and, over time, expanded both its programs and enrollment.
Now in its 45th year, the center is open to any household on the payroll and each year enrolls about 350 children from 12 weeks to 12 years old.
The center is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and also on certain holidays based on need, said director Linda Lawson.
Once run by Spartanburg Regional, the center on North Pine Street is now managed by Bright Horizons, a third-party operator that oversees 18 classrooms, an art studio, and three age-appropriate playgrounds, with a staff of 57.
Although the medical system’s investment in the center is considerable, its benefits outweigh those costs, Lawson said.
“’Cause I’ve had parents come to me and say, ‘I’ve been offered a position … can I leave my child here if I leave?’ And the answer is no. And they don’t leave,” Lawson said.
In addition to nurses, the center also helps attract physicians.
“A lot of times people will choose to do their residency here because of this child care center” and will join the staff afterward, Lawson said.
Prisma Health-Upstate, the region’s other large health care organization, opened its child care center on the Greenville Memorial campus in 2011 in partnership with Bright Horizons.
As in Spartanburg, the Greenville center was based on “a good, hard look at where was the workforce of the future going to come from,” said Tony Bohn, Prisma Health’s vice president for total rewards in charge of compensation and benefits.
Sixty-four percent of Prisma’s Upstate workforce is female, Bohn noted, the majority of them of childbearing age.
Open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and on certain holidays as needed, the center serves infants through age 5.
At mid-February, the center’s waiting list stood at 250.
Co-workers had spoken of the center highly “and so we knew that we wanted to get in and get on the waiting list here as soon as possible,” said Ashley Metcalf, a trauma program performance improvement coordinator who joined Prisma Health in 2012 and whose husband travels extensively. The couple have a son.
“Probably the biggest asset was when I first came back to work. I was still breastfeeding and so I was able to walk over, feed him, and then go back,” Metcalf said of the center’s breastfeeding station.
“I can say that this [the center] has definitely helped in my retention … and it’s helped with my appreciation of my position and my job,” she said.
Area universities are also taking note of child care needs.
At Furman University’s child development center, the objective is to recruit and retain “the highest quality faculty and staff,” Director Meredith Burton said.
Kids age 3 through kindergarten whose parents are Furman employees and children who live within a four-mile radius of the campus are eligible to enroll, Burton said. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
In February, Clemson University broke ground for its own center, scheduled for completion next year. To be operated by a third party, the center will serve infants through preschoolers.
But the programs at Greenville, Spartanburg, Furman, and eventually Clemson are outliers, with a vast majority of the Upstate workforce left to find child care on their own.
Lekesa Whitner, a neighborhood counselor at Spartanburg’s Northside Development Group who struggled with balancing job and family when she worked for a large area employer, thinks employer-sponsored care is rare for a reason.
“The liability, the risk … and then, they probably look at it as there’s enough day cares out there,” she said.
Lawson believes it’s difficult for companies to take on child care without a hefty budget. And yet, she said, “With the workforce being as many women as it is, that’s very important.”
One smaller business that’s tackling the issue is Find Great People, a Greenville employee recruitment firm.
In addition to hearing about child care from candidates, the firm tries to assist its staff.
“We try and also work with individuals that may want to leave every day at 2:30 or 3 and have that flexibility,” said Megan Coleman, a senior recruiter.
If a candidate has care needs but takes a job that requires substantial work on-site or with teams, “that individual or that type of job doesn’t typically have as much flexibility,” Coleman said.
Candidates should plan their care strategy upfront before a job interview and “that may be part of discussions related to the candidate’s start date,” she added.
Trending: Flexible day care hours
For parents who don’t have employer care or need an alternative to traditional day care schedules, options are emerging.
At KidsZone Drop-In Hourly Childcare on Orchard Park Drive in Greenville, parents can opt for an hourly rate, a flat fee for after-school coverage, or a full-day rate with the ability to switch days each week.
The center closes at 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and midnight Friday and Saturday.
The first drop-in provider in the market, Giggles Drop-In Childcare, opened in 2017 on Augusta Road. Its second location is now open at 3620 Pelham Road.
Donna Quinn, the KidsZone owner, said providing parents with scheduling options is a growing trend.
“I think that it is and I think that it will continue to be,” she said.
But with many day cares tied to traditional hours, some moms may have to make a tough choice.
“I will say that they either change jobs or they just decide not to be in the job market right now …,” said Metcalf, the Prisma Health employee, of some acquaintances.
“I think it’s a life decision to make because once you come out of the workforce, trying to get back in can be difficult,” she said.