In the face of a persistent worker shortage across Nebraska, several companies are pursuing solutions to a problem sidelining thousands of potential workers: a lack of child care.
The pandemic pummeled child care providers in Nebraska and the U.S. Those woes are expected to worsen with the recent expiration of federal pandemic-era funding for providers, which could further pinch working parents.
In that climate, companies are getting creative.
The sports technology company Hudl opened an on-site child care center at its Lincoln headquarters earlier this year. And Omaha-based nonprofit QLI turned to a startup, Swishboom, to connect its staff with vetted on-demand backup child care providers.
“We knew the child care issue is everywhere,” said Kiley Armitage, director of operations at QLI, which provides rehabilitation services for people with brain or spinal cord injuries. “It can be expensive, hard to find a trusted carer or when a caregiving family member gets sick.”
Affordable and quality child care, according to a 2022 Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry policy brief, is key to keeping parents in Nebraska’s workforce during the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Child care challenges started long before COVID-19. Many parents struggled to find and afford it before the pandemic, as annual child care costs often rose past the cost of college tuition. Providers – operating on thin margins – faced financial uncertainty.
And those struggles hurt the state: A 2020 study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln economists showed that the state was already losing $745 million annually when parents drop out of the workforce or move elsewhere because of a lack of child care.
Then, during the pandemic, things grew more bleak.
Nebraska has lost almost 10% of the state’s child care programs since COVID-19 hit, according to a recent research brief from the University of Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
The situation could have been worse, the research shows.
Federal COVID-19 relief packages pumped an estimated $312.1 million into Nebraska. Those dollars “helped providers meet payroll, offer additional slots to children and families, and keep their doors open,” according to the Buffett Institute.
But most of those funding packages expired Saturday, after Congress didn’t extend them. Child care advocates and others had warned of the so-called “child care cliff” leading up to the Sept. 30 expiration date in hopes of spurring action. They said the loss of federal funds could trigger a wave of closures across the country.
Fewer child care options could carry economic consequences.
In August, nearly 68,000 job openings were posted online in Nebraska. At the same time, the state has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, signaling a mismatch between available jobs and workers to fill them.
According to a statewide survey commissioned earlier this year by Nebraska Extension and We Care for Kids, nearly a third of parents with children 5 and younger said they had left the workforce because they couldn’t find affordable child care.
“When you put all that together you can see where the crisis is,” said Walter Gilliam, Buffett Institute executive director, at an annual conference held in Kearney last month.
COVID-19 exposed cracks in an already unsustainable child care system, said Kellee Mikuls, founder and CEO of Swishboom, a mobile app that connects families in Omaha with on-demand child care services via its network of vetted local sitters. Low wages and thin profit margins mean few high quality options for families.
“It’s not just an Omaha problem — there is a child care crisis happening right now in the United States,” Mikuls said.
QLI is partnering with Swishboom to provide free access to the platform for any of its approximately 425 employees for one year.
QLI’s Armitage said the leadership team considered offering child care stipends or an afterschool program. They ultimately decided to contract with Swishboom because it addressed the challenge they were trying to solve for their employees: Finding a trusted caregiver even if it’s last-minute.
In July, Primrose School opened as an on-site child care provider for Hudl’s headquarters in Lincoln – home to around 600 of the company’s 3,500 global workforce.
An annual engagement survey revealed a desire for more benefits for existing and soon-to-be parents at Hudl, said Mark Ketcham, vice president of operations at Hudl.
Primrose School at Hudl features 7,000 square feet of indoor learning and purposeful play space, an outdoor area and multiple age-specific classrooms to serve infants through pre-K. Hudl employees receive subsidized rates.
“I appreciate that I can take advantage of this benefit and better balance growing in my profession without sacrificing being a great mom,” said Hudl employee and Primrose parent Marilyn John.
Hudl hopes the on-site child care incentivizes more employees to come into the office as the post-COVID work landscape continues to evolve, Ketcham said.
Both QLI and Hudl hope the child care benefits will help attract and retain talent.
Hudl is partnering with First Five Nebraska, a nonprofit focused on early childhood care and learning, to study the impact of offering on-site care, Ketcham said.
“We want to be able to tell our story and show others what this can provide,” Ketcham said. “We have already seen tremendous support from those using (the center), including nursing mothers.”
Armitage at QLI said the new Swishboom benefit is highlighted in new employee onboarding, and current employees are starting to download the app.
“It’s just nice to have the peace of mind that there’s a back up plan.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. This story was originally published by Silicon Prairie News, FFP’s sister news outlet devoted to all things related to Nebraska startups and small businesses.