The Center for American Progress reports 51 percent of Americans lack access to quality child care, creating child care deserts. (Illustration by Melinda Arendt)

The Cost of Caring

For mothers affected by the soaring cost of child care, companies that offer help have an edge

Back Longreads Mar 9, 2020 By Robin Epley

Tonja Candelaria would probably be living in the Pacific Northwest, working at her dream job of public relations for a zoo, if she hadn’t chosen to have children.

“We’ve looked at other job opportunities, in other places, in other states, where we would like to live,” says Candelaria, 31. “But it came down to, do we want to have children? Or do we want to take this opportunity for a job?”

This story is part of our 2020 Women in Leadership issue. To explore the issue, click here.

If she and her husband wanted children, Candelaria says they knew they would have to stay close to family in Sacramento. They made their choice nearly four years ago with the birth of their first son. The couple now has two young boys, and Candelaria’s mother cares for them when the couple is at work. “There’s no way we could afford child care,” she says. “It’s more than $1,500 a month. That’s more than rent for a lot of people.”

Despite all of this, the Candelarias are among the lucky ones. The Center for American Progress reports 51 percent of Americans lack access to quality child care, creating child care deserts. Half of the employees surveyed without children in a recent Bright Horizons study said they factored child care into their career decisions whether or not they had or were planning to have children. More than half of working mothers surveyed said a baby would likely cause them to quit or change their job.

A 2015 poll conducted by The Washington Post found that more than 75 percent of mothers and half of fathers had given up work opportunities, switched jobs or flat-out quit jobs due to a lack of paid leave or child care options. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child care is considered “affordable” if it costs no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. Infant care for one child in California takes up to 22 percent of the median family income for minimum state licensing standards. 

The outlook is grim in the Sacramento area too. According to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, there are only enough child care slots in Sacramento for about 27 percent of young children with working parents. According to the California Department of Education, child care costs in Sacramento County are more than $1,200 per month, and nearly $1,300 in Placer and El Dorado counties. They’re even higher in Yolo County, where it’s about $1,400 per month per child.

Many women these days delay motherhood until their late 20s and 30s, when they are more financially stable and further along in their careers. An employee in her 30s who is an emerging leader in her company, but departs — for any reason, including child care concerns — compromises both a company’s knowledge base and its pipeline to upper management. But what if more companies helped shoulder the burden that these new parents face, especially in the first five years of a child’s life? Not unlike offering health, vision or dental insurance, a company’s investment into an employee’s family can ensure they remain committed to their careers, while offering a soft landing in case of emergency circumstances in their family. 

Working over Hurdles

Candelaria works as a communications manager for VSP, a vision care insurance company with about 3,000 employees in the Sacramento region. “The company I work at is great,” she says. “They are very flexible and family-friendly, which is part of why I stay where I am. They give me the flexibility I need to make it to my child’s doctor’s appointments. But if they didn’t, I don’t know what I would do.”

Candelaria also has another hurdle in her home life: Her youngest has a medical condition that requires multiple weekly doctor’s appointments and round-the-clock care. “While we’re able to manage it, it is not easy,” she says. “It requires going into work early and staying late so that I can leave midday to make appointments. I often make up work on weekends during naptime and am very conscious while at work of how (coworkers’) perceptions of me are impacted by appointments, rushing my child to the ER and taking phone calls from medical professionals while I’m in the office.”

Candelaria says while her employment at VSP has mostly suited the daily needs of her family, and her manager is understanding and flexible, the biggest reason she stays at her job is the fear of losing her health care benefits. “My career has changed because we wanted to have children,” she says. “And even now, if I wanted to change it, I have to look at things like is the health insurance going to overlap? Am I going to have a health insurance waiting period?”

One major way an employer can help solve the child care challenge of employees is by providing employer-sponsored child care centers on-site or nearby. These day care centers have had a proven and lasting effect on employees, by eliminating stress and distraction. According to a 2013 study prepared by Horizons Workforce Consulting, 95 percent of more than 100,000 respondents said their employer-sponsored child care enabled them to concentrate on the job, and 93 percent said it enabled them to meet their job expectations. 

More than one in seven said they had turned down or not pursued a potential job change in order to maintain access to employer-sponsored child care.

Here in the Capital Region, SMUD recently announced a new partnership with UC Davis Health and Sacramento State to provide a new child care facility on the Sac State campus for more than 200 children. The partnership will expand and transition the independently owned and operated Lighthouse Child Development Center, which has been in operation since 1991 and is currently located on SMUD’s campus on S Street. When the new building opens in early 2021, it will double the capacity, and all enrolled at Lighthouse — the majority are children of SMUD employees — will be guaranteed a space. The remaining spaces will be made available to the children of employees at SMUD, UC Davis and Sacramento State. 

Sarah Sciandri, 38, a mother of two who works as a senior public information specialist at SMUD, has been taking advantage of the child care program there since she started with the company three years ago. “Before that, I’d been working in the downtown area, and we’d gone to two different day cares, but coming here to SMUD and having the location so close to where our office was, that was obviously going to be a no-brainer for me to make the switch,” Sciandri says.

Both Sciandri and her husband work, and she says “it was always a part of the plan” to send their children to day care. Knowing that SMUD offered child care on-site for its working parents was a highly sought-after perk, and knowing her youngest is nearby (her eldest has aged out of the program and is enrolled in school) eases some of the “working-mom guilt” as well, she says.

“It’s a family-oriented feeling, when you talk to other coworkers that have kids there or have had kids there in the past,” Sciandri says. “Knowing that other people have done it, and their kids have thrived in that setting with their parents working, it gives you a little peace of mind.” 

The Mothers of Invention

More than 1 million millennial women become new mothers every year, according to the Pew Research Center, but the increasingly obvious skew toward older motherhood may stem from many factors, including delaying marriage, more women seeking higher education and more women in the labor force.

But it could be better. According to Rand Europe, an independent not-for-profit policy-research organization, women in Germany can take up to three years of paid maternity leave, and in 2013, its government guaranteed every child over 12 months old a spot in public day care. As of 2016, parents who cannot get their child into one of these centers can sue the government for lost wages. France has had publicly funded day care since 1848, and a mother can take up to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. 

Several Democratic candidates for president have advocated for improved early childhood policies. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has proposed spending more than $1 trillion on a national child care system, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sponsored the Foundations for Success Act in 2011, which would have provided all prekindergarten children with access to full-time care and education. It languished in committee and was never passed. The U.S. offers government subsidies for child care for poorer families, but only one in nine of the 2 million children eligible in California received services in 2017, due to a lack of available spaces, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom made funding and subsidizing preschool and child care facilities a priority in his 2019-20 budget, including $300 million for full-day kindergarten facilities and addressing barriers to full-day kindergarten programs; $263 million for early learning and care facilities; and $195 million for education, training, grants and other workforce support. But the budget did not include funding to expand access to subsidized programs for children from low- and moderate-income families, despite the hundreds of thousands of parents in these income brackets who have been waiting for years to gain access to a child care program.

“Not only am I trying to do my job, trying to juggle health insurance, trying to put dinner on the table every night, and make sure my kids are dressed every morning and up in time to go to whoever is watching them,” Candelaria says, “then I’m trying to be their health care advocate, remembering their six-month dental checkups and trying to take the time off work to get them there, but also make sure I have enough vacation time left so that we can have a family holiday. It’s a lot.” 

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