Advocates looking to solve Wichita's child-care crisis convened a small group of local employers Wednesday to identify needs of working parents and explore possible solutions.
The message from employers was clear — child care is a workforce issue for their companies, and they're willing to help solve it.
"I'm looking for other businesses to partner with to come up with some sort of outside-of-the-box solution, because what we are traditionally doing in child care doesn't answer a lot of the needs that our employees have," said Lesley Hazleton, who is chief financial officer at Cox Machine, a precision manufacturer with about 250 employees in Wichita.
In addition to Cox Machine, employers in the room included Integra Technologies, Emprise Bank, Spirit AeroSystems, Meritrust Credit Union and others.
The meeting at the Workforce Center was organized by a workgroup convened by the Wichita Coalition for Child Abuse Prevention, including members representing workforce development, government, and child-care providers and resources. The workgroup launched earlier this year to address the desperate need for child-care availability in the Wichita area.
According to data from Child Care Aware of Kansas, the number of licensed child-care providers in the area has steadily declined in recent years — a problem that's worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic.
At child-care centers in Sedgwick County, there are 13 children for every one available slot for children younger than 3 years old, and most programs have at least a minimum two-year wait for infant care.
"We know we can't change the crisis overnight, but we want to work together on this," said Tanya Bulluck, who was recently named executive director of Child Start, a local nonprofit that provides early childhood development services, and is also involved in the workgroup.
In response to the desperate need for child care, the workgroup identified four main goals:
Already, the group successfully advocated for a change to the state's child daycare assistance tax credit program, which incentivizes businesses to help cover a portion of the costs of their employees' child care, or provide onsite child care themselves.
City and Sedgwick County officials are also considering a change to their unified zoning code that could increase the capacity of home daycares.
Keith Lawing, CEO of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, who is involved in the workgroup and attended the Wednesday meeting, said every company is looking to be an employer of choice in such a tight labor market.
"By offering some kind of benefit around child care, that's going to help you as an employer in hiring," Lawing said during the meeting.
From the vantage point of employers, some of the attendees said their companies have 24-hour operations, so employees who work second or third shift often struggle to find child care. Another barrier, they noted, is when employees are called into work on short notice, such as on snow days or to pick up a coworker's shift. Many daycares don't have the room — or the staff — to accommodate last-minute requests, they said.
"As somebody who's trying to hire people — and it doesn't matter whether they're male or female — this is an issue for us," said Hazleton, of Cox Machine. "... How do we help more employers and their leadership teams understand the issue as well? Because we're in."
The employers discussed opportunities to partner to underwrite and reserve child-care slots for their employees.
"That is an ideal opportunity to start exploring some options here, because you could do partnerships based on geographic locations based on where your business is," Lawing said. "... Bringing maybe a group of employers together and say, 'We can help guarantee some revenue for your facility,' that child-care facility may say, 'Heck yes, let's go into a partnership.'"
Ultimately, the workgroup plans to meet again in December and January to bring more employers, as well as child-care providers, to explore potential partnerships.
"If there’s enough interest among employers in the room to talk to centers or home providers… maybe we can create a conversation," said Teresa Rupp of Child Start.