March 22, 2023 12:08 am

Local News

Company Tests a $5K Subsidy to Help Employees Pay for Child Care

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

When the COVID-19 pandemic made filling job openings even tougher than it had been for years, Tina Kowalczyk decided to see what Schreiber Foods could do to help employees with child care.

Kowalczyk leads the benefits team at Schreiber, a Green Bay producer and distributor of branded foods, including cheeses, dairy beverages and yogurt, with 9,000 employees and operations across the U.S. and in Latin America, Europe and India. 

“The thing that we struggle with is how do we attract and retain people,” she says. 

Manufacturers have been saying for the last decade that they have some jobs that go begging. The pandemic made the challenge worse. 

It also sent child care providers reeling — and sent many working parents home to do their jobs remotely, or to leave the workforce entirely. 

Schreiber already had a good benefits package, with coverage for vision and dental care along with medical care, Kowalczyk says. The pandemic highlighted the need for child care support as well. 

“We know child care is expensive,” she says — costing a family $10,000 to $12,000 a year or more in Wisconsin. “We want to be able to provide some relief and reduce that barrier. Not only is it attraction [for new employees], it’s retention. We want to keep them — not lose them to another company.”

In late 2022, Schreiber rolled out a new benefit: covering up to $5,000 a year in employees’ child care expenses. So far the benefit is in the pilot stages at two U.S. production and distribution facilities: in Stephenville, Texas, and in Richland Center, located in west-central Wisconsin. 

Digital platform

Schreiber devised the child care benefit after signing up with Tootris, a California firm that provides a proprietary platform listing about 200,000 licensed child care providers across the U.S. 

Access to the platform is free for registered users, but premium membership, costing $25 a month, provides more detailed information about each provider. The paid level enables parents to enroll their children in a listed care center in real time. It also provides a channel parents can use to communicate directly with providers and grants access to photos and videos that providers post, along with other features. 

While individual users can sign up directly, Jeff McAdam, Tootris’ creative director, says the company considers its primary customers to be employers, who pay for their workers’ premium subscriptions, with group discounts available based on the number of employees who are enrolled.

There’s no charge for child care providers to be listed, but providers must be licensed. Tootris gets its database information from public licensure records, McAdam says. 

Providers can claim their profiles on the database and, once verified, can add additional information, also at no charge, he says. If a provider’s license lapses, the profile drops from the site.

For providers, Tootris offers greater visibility on its platform along with the automation tools. More than 70% of licensed child care providers in the U.S. are smaller, home-based operations, McAdam says. Many of them “don’t know how to market themselves,” he adds. “They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money.”

Based in San Diego, Tootris was launched in 2019 by Alessandra Lezama, a tech entrepreneur and investor and the company’s chief executive. The business takes its name from “tutrice,” a French word for “tutor,” but spells it phonetically. 

In addition to sponsoring employees’ premium access to the platform and the administrative tools it offers, Tootris also gives employers the option of subsidizing their employees’ child care costs. The platform enables employers to make direct payments to their employees’ child care providers, “so that providers get paid on time and reimbursements to employees aren’t necessary,” McAdam says.

There’s no set amount for such subsidies, and Tootris passes all the money on to providers with no additional commission or fee.

In response to a child care industry financial structure that has been “broken for decades,” the federal government has boosted incentivies and subsidies for providers, “but it’s simply not enough,” McAdam says. “Businesses are the key to a more permanent, substantive fix. When they invest in employee childcare solutions, they are investing in the childcare industry, which helps parents, providers and employers all at the same time.”

Kowalczyk says Schreiber covers up to 50% of an employee’s monthly child care costs, capped at $1,000 a month or $5,000 a year. The company pays providers its portion through Tootris and employees are responsible for the rest, also paying through the platform. 

Providers get exposure

McAdam says that after an employer signs up with the platform, Tootris reaches out to child care providers in the employer’s community and encourages them to claim their pages on Tootris if they haven’t already. 

For Pastor Dan Lewig, of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Richland Center, the Schreiber-Tootris partnership came at an opportune time.

The congregation started up in September 2019, an offshoot of other Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod churches in the region. By that time, Lewig and others organizing the church had already been hearing from families about their difficulties in finding child care in the community. 

“Eighty percent of child care slots have been lost in Richland County in the last 10 years,” Lewig says. By the middle of 2022, there had been no full-time group child care facility in Richland Center for five years.

When a school building went on the market, the fledgling church acquired it both as a church building to hold worship services and as the site for a new child care center. Now fully operational, the site is licensed for 18 3- and 4-year-old pre-schoolers, with plans to expand to enroll up to 50 children. 

The county human services department had already been using the building as one of its senior meals program locations, and that continues with other intergenerational activities that enable kids and the elderly to mingle.

Tootris contacted Lewig as the company was implementing the Schreiber Foods program, ensuring that Bethlehem Lutheran Academy could claim its profile and post additional information about the center on the Tootris website. 

“Local businesses [are] seeing  the need to step up,” Lewig says. “All this is a benefit from a recruitment and retention standpoint, but [also] helping to improve the community in which they serve. That’s where Schreiber has really stepped out in front to put kind of the exclamation point on that involvement and awareness.”

‘Larger than one company’

Schreiber Foods’ approach is just one of many ways employers have sought to respond to the child care gap, says Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA), a child care advocacy group. 

Some have established onsite child care for their employees. Others have contracted with national child care providers on behalf of their workers. Others, like Schreiber Foods, subsidize their employees’ out-of-pocket child care costs.

To ensure long-term sustainability for child care providers, however, more is needed, Schmidt says — starting with “an increase in revenue coming into child care programs.”

That’s why a WECA-led coalition, Raising Wisconsin, calls for the state Legislature to continue Child Care Counts, a state program funded currently from Wisconsin’s share of federal pandemic relief. The program has been sending checks to providers so they can avoid tuition hikes while also raising pay for child care workers.

“It’s great for businesses to do things to support their employees directly — that’s huge, and that’s important,” says Schmidt. “We also really need the influence of businesses to raise the visibility of this issue and to call for a public investment in care.”

In Richland Center, 39 Schreiber employees, 11% of the plant’s workforce, opted into the company’s program during open enrollment in November. The benefit took effect starting Jan. 1.

Early feedback from employees on the program has been positive. “They’re seeing this as a real benefit — something they’re happy to take advantage of,” Kowalczyk says.

After the pilot plans have been in place long enough to evaluate, the company will look at how many active employees and how many new hires use the benefit as well as whether it attracts more job applicants. The findings could help Schreiber decide whether to expand the program to other operations around the country.

“Is this going to open up our applicant pool?” Kowalczyk says. “Are we going to see less turnover in the future? Those are some of the things we’re looking at.”

No individual employer will solve the child care challenge alone, however, she observes. 

“It’s definitely a larger issue than just one company,” Kowalczyk says. “The greater issue is how can we have enough child care providers for those folks who want to be working. . . . They need the support of the community to provide those services.”

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.