Groups gauge interest in employer-supported child care options in Santa Fe

April 19, 2022 Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Jessica Pollard:

About 230 children are waiting in line for services at Kids Campus, a preschool and child care center at Santa Fe Community College.

Applications keep rolling in every day — from college staff, students and the wider community.

Director Deyanira Contreras said the wait list for the program, which has a capacity to serve 120 kids ages 2 months to 5 years, is an overwhelming sign the high demand for services for young children in Santa Fe far surpasses what’s available, especially as parents return to in-person work after two years of unemployment or remote jobs.

“We have a bunch of people who are trying to go back to normal a little bit, who are no longer working from home,” Contreras said. “More places are open in-person, so we definitely noticed that has increased our wait-list applications.”

A survey conducted in 2021 by the local nonprofit Growing Up New Mexico found 57 percent of families with children under 5 need more care for their kids.

The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce believes the steep figure shows child care remains a top barrier to rebuilding the local workforce and an economy tattered by COVID-19.

“As all these businesses are opening up, they still are having the challenges of finding a workforce,” said chamber President and CEO Bridget Dixson. “The number one reason businesses are having these challenges is because of a lack of child care.”

As preschool and day care services across the city remain sparse, with some centers shutting their doors for good in the past two years, Growing Up New Mexico and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce are joining on an effort aimed at getting employers involved in filling in the gaps, particularly in industries with nontraditional hours such as tourism and health care.

The two groups recently launched a survey for employers to gauge interest and demand of possible services like site-based child care for workers, or employer-supported care, in which workplaces would provide funds to cover workers’ child care costs.

The survey asks employers if they have been affected by the child care shortage, what steps they might take to meet workers’ needs, what kinds of services workers require and how much they might offer an employee to help cover preschool or day care tuition.

Dozens of businesses already have responded, said Kate Noble, a Santa Fe school board member who works as Growing Up New Mexico’s vice president of policy and stakeholder engagement.

The survey is meant as an initial step toward getting businesses engaged in helping to fill child care needs in the city, Noble said.

Dixson said she’s not aware of any private-sector employers who provide child care aid or services. She and Noble believe educational institutions are paving the way.

In early April, Santa Fe Public Schools announced it will pilot an early childhood center for employees in August, when teachers and staff return from summer break. The center, with 44 open seats for children, will be housed in Ramirez Thomas Elementary School, and will be open from 7:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Children of teachers will take preference, with 70 percent of the slots offered to educators with kids ages 12 months to 3 years; the remaining 30 percent will be open to other district staff at a cost of $150 to $250 a month.

At Kids Campus, about 30 percent of the slots go to children of college students or campus employees and the rest are up for grabs.

Contreras said the benefits of site-based care for workers are numerous.

“By having their child care here, they’re able to return after their maternity leave,” she said of her own employees, four of whom have their children enrolled at Kids Campus. “Having the same schedule as their kids is just really great.”

When employees don’t have to scramble for child care, Noble said, absenteeism and cases of distracted workers trend downward.

“It’s long been an issue for business,” she said. “It’s not a new subject, but the urgency has increased because of the pandemic.”

About 80 percent of local businesses in the city have fewer than 10 employees; Dixson said that heightens the need for child care access.

“When you have a retail store of two or three employees and someone has a sick child or can’t work an evening … they’re really feeling it,” she said.

Small businesses may need to band together to establish joint employer-based centers or consider other ways of supporting employees with child care needs, Dixson added.

Providers cite in particular a high demand for infant care and programs available for children after regular business hours.

Margo Moriarty discovered an unfilled need for such services when she was unable to find suitable care for her own family when she planned to return to her teaching job. In response, she started a local business, the HoliTOMoli Holistic Arts Academy on Alto Street, for infants and kids up to age 6.

In addition to providing programs for toddlers and preschoolers, she has three slots available for infants and said they’re always in demand. She keeps her capacity for infants low to improve the quality of care, she added.

“Infant care is really, really needed,” Moriarty said. “It’s hard to run an infant program.”

All the money her business earns to provide infant care goes straight to staff members who are qualified to care for multiple babies at once.

Contreras said infant care is in high demand at Kids Campus, as well. The center can enroll only 16 infants at a time, while the number of infants on the wait list has grown to more than 100.

“As soon as they find out they are pregnant, they fill out an application,” she said of expectant parents who want to enroll their babies in the Kids Campus program.

The New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which oversees the state’s child care assistance program, used federal pandemic relief funds in July to dramatically increase income eligibility for parents, raising the cap to 350 percent of the federal poverty level — or about $93,000 for a family of four.

While the change put child care within reach for many more families, Contreras said, it also could be a reason demand for child care has risen and providers aren’t able to meet it.

Santa Fe City Councilor Jamie Cassutt, a single mother, is hopeful the new initiative by the Chamber of Commerce and Growing up New Mexico will help increase child care options for local parents, especially those working in industries with late shifts, such as the city’s service industry.

“Tourism is one of the main economic drivers in our community,” Cassutt said. “If we think about individuals working in the service industry, they’re not working a 9-to-5 schedule.”

It’s not immediately clear what role the city might play in the initiative, Cassutt said, but she’s prepared to back proposals that emerge from the results of the survey.

Cassutt is advocating for a measure that would allow child care facilities — the city identified 37 licensed facilities during a recent Planning Commission meeting — to expand capacity beyond six children without being required to obtain a special-use permit. This would allow more children to attend home-based centers and those affiliated with religious institutions, she said.

The City Council also will consider using federal pandemic relief funds to establish a work-study program with Santa Fe Community College that would allow early childhood education students to enter preschool classrooms sooner and help child care centers meet state staffing requirements.

“There’s not one organization that can solve this, and there’s not one silver bullet to this,” Cassutt said. “There really is going to have to be a concerted, collaborative effort.”