Jennifer Stevens, director of Happy Days at Colby Child Care Center in Waterville, plays with a baby in her care Thursday. After about 30 years of struggling to provide child care help for its faculty and staff, the college decided to convert an underused building into a day care center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel 

Beth Dumont added her name to every child care center waitlist in Bar Harbor before she even had a job offer from The Jackson Laboratory.

Dumont, an associate professor of mammalian genetics, was moving from North Carolina and had been warned by prospective co-workers that child care options in the area were few and far between.

Even with the advance notice, it still took nearly a year for Dumont to find a spot for her son, Cedric. It was 30 minutes in the opposite direction, but better than cobbling help from family.

Child care in Maine is in crisis, with low wages and retention for staff and high costs and limited access for parents. And the impacts are bleeding into the workforce, keeping workers home at a time when employers need every person they can get.

Now, more businesses are confronting child care directly, in an effort to find effective solutions that will keep parents at work and attract new ones.

Child care has long been a struggle for working parents, especially women.


In each year from 2016 to 2018, more than 2 million parents of children ages 5 and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or change their job because of child care challenges, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Women were disproportionately affected.

In 2019, the cost of lost earnings, productivity and revenue because of the child care crisis was estimated at $57 billion annually.

But the pandemic accelerated the trajectory and federal officials now estimate that that figure is closer to $122 billion, including $400 million in Maine.

As the workforce shortage intensified, something that had long been a parent-only issue had employers, desperate to keep and attract employees, scrambling for a solution.

For a growing number of companies, that solution has included investing in child care.

It’s a trend that has been gaining traction nationally, with large companies like Tyson, Chobani, Patagonia and Google offering various levels of assistance for working parents.


It’s happening locally, too. Over the last few years, more employers have been reaching out about how to offer family-friendly policies, and more employees are reaching out seeking job openings among companies that offer them, said Rhoda McVeigh, director of human resource services at Falmouth-based KMA Human Resources Consulting.

Employers that aren’t trying to find ways to support their working parents are making them make difficult decisions about whether they can keep their jobs, she said.

“Back in the day, it wasn’t an employer problem, because you chose to have kids. Not anymore. It’s very much an employer problem,” McVeigh said.


Some businesses are tackling the problem head-on and investing huge amounts of money to build on-site child care centers to bolster access for parents. After Dumont raised the issue with Jackson Lab officials, the company shelled out $5 million for an on-campus day care, expected to open next year. Others, like TimberHP in Madison, are taking a swing at the affordability. On average, child care costs parents about $10,000 per child annually. The wood fiber insulation company is offering $5,000 in a dependent-care flexible spending account for parents to spend on child care.

It’s not a perfect solution. Employer-sponsored child care often addresses just one facet of the issue – either access or affordability. But experts say it’s a step in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a Band-Aid while government officials work to fix a broken system.


“For those big employers who have the resources to keep high standards for workers to help people afford the cost of child care, that’s a positive thing. But our state’s focus should really be for a statewide plan that reaches all workers, not just people that are paid by those bigger companies,” said Arthur Phillips, an analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Partnerships and conversations between employers and child care centers should continue, agreed Jason Judd, executive director of Educate Maine. But state and government funding will be key to finding lasting solutions.

“Employers can’t be the only group that’s trying to solve this issue, nor can families,” Judd said. “It needs to be a multipronged approach.”


Employer-sponsored child care is not a novel idea. Bowdoin College has had an on-campus day care center for employees’ children for decades. But the coronavirus brought the challenges faced by working parents to the forefront.

And the solutions look different for every company.


“You have to engage with employees to find out their top needs,” McVeigh said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach anymore.”

With the historically low unemployment rate, thinking about how to attract and retain workers is critical, said Cynthia Murphy, senior program director of workforce solutions for Coastal Enterprises Inc.

Murphy works with businesses to help them develop family-friendly policies, including how to support child care, and she thinks about the options as a continuum.

Most employers immediately think of an on-site center as the only way to sponsor child care, but that’s not the case, Murphy said.

At one end are no- to low-cost solutions, like providing resources for parents – providing a link to Maine’s child care center online hub,, and information about the state subsidy program when onboarding employees. Then there are policy changes like allowing for flexible hours or remote work.

The most popular option is a dependent-care flexible spending account, a pretax benefit account used to pay for eligible dependent care services including but not limited to child care. The account caps at $5,000 and employers have the ability to contribute, but they are not required to.


Moving up the continuum, Murphy said, is reserving spots at a local child care center – it doesn’t address the issue of cost, but it does help provide access. In this option, the parents pay for their child to be enrolled, and if the slot is not filled, the employer pays. In some cases, reserving a large number of spots can give the business a little negotiating room, like hours of operation more conducive to parents’ schedules, she said.

Some businesses will contract with a local center to provide back-up child care rather than full-time access.

And then there’s on-site child care. While some businesses, like Bowdoin College, can afford to build, staff and run a child care center, most employers that pursue on-site care will choose to contract with an existing provider. Employers offering on-site care are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to 25% of the expenses associated with providing care, up to $150,000 a year.

Despite the options, only 1% of businesses and nonprofits have policies supporting working parents, according to a December report by Tootris, a service that helps connect families with child care resources, including those sponsored by employers.

Of those, about 56% offer a dependent-care flexible spending account and 41% offer resource and referral services.

Just 7% offer on-site or near-site child care and 5% offer backup care through a bigger day care provider like KinderCare, Bright Horizons or The Learning Care Group.


Only 2% offer to help employees pay for child care through a cost-sharing or reimbursement plan, according to Tootris.


Without many providers in Madison, TimberHP tried to make onsite child care work. Company officials explored every option and had conversations with multiple providers, but with only 70 employees, they wouldn’t be able to afford it, even if they opened spots for the community.

There were so many parts they didn’t have control over, said Sarah King, chief human resources officer, but a dependent-care FSA was well within reach.

Employers are not obligated to contribute to an FSA, but CEO Joshua Henry chose to offer the full $5,000.

“We’re trying really hard to impact the availability of child care and we’re going to continue to do that, but the thing we could do today was to help them pay for it,” King said.


Child care is often considered an issue for young families and especially women. With a 75/25 male-to-female ratio and an average age of 47, TimberHP may not seem the most obvious choice as an industry pioneer. But the company is growing and King estimated that by the time they reach full production capacity of 120 to 140 employees, about 35% of them will take the benefit. And since the account can be used for parental or spousal care, it’s accessible for people of all ages.

“As a startup, if we do it now and budget for it now, it’ll always be part of what we do,” King said.

Plus, Henry knows personally the struggle of juggling work and a young family.

On King’s first day in 2019, Henry had to stay home with a sick child, so she met with him over Zoom while he whispered in front of his daughter’s crib.

For Levi Murray, whose 18-month-old son is in day care in Norridgewock, the FSA is a huge help. His family was lucky – they were able to find a spot near where they lived and they knew they could afford it. But at $180 a week, it’s not a small expense.

The $5,000 covers more than half of the approximately $8,000 Murray will pay for child care.


“It’s like getting a raise on day one (of the year) if you have a dependent that’s relying on you to have this job,” he said.


Ciaran Grady, 4, left, and Annabel Godbout, 3, play at Happy Days at Colby Child Care Center in Waterville on Thursday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

It took Colby College about 30 years to find a solution for its child care needs.

Officials looked at building an on-campus center, additions onto other buildings and partnerships with other providers, but it never worked out – it was too expensive, they wouldn’t be able to provide enough spots, the timing wasn’t right.

Then the pandemic struck, said Margaret McFadden, provost and dean of faculty.

“It became so obvious that our faculty and staff could not function unless we found a way to solve this problem,” she said. “We just decided to spend the money.”


The school spent about $1 million to renovate an underused building on campus previously used for faculty sabbatical services. They contracted with Jennifer Stevens and Rae Ann LaJoie, who run Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center in Winslow.

Happy Days Childcare and Learning Center at Colby College opened last September, with 38 available spots. They filled up immediately.

There’s already a waitlist, but if at some point Colby College employees don’t fill all the spots, they’ll open up enrollment to the rest of the community.

Stevens and LaJoie run and staff the center, but McFadden said the college is subsidizing some of the fees in order to make rates on par with other providers in the area, keeping the service cost-neutral for parents. She said the center has been a game-changer for the roughly 700 employees.


Katy Longley, executive vice president and chief operating officer at The Jackson Laboratory, said the company has had people turn down job offers because they weren’t able to find child care.


“When we’re recruiting scientists out of graduate programs and post-docs, that’s the exact same time they’re thinking about having families,” Longley said. “This is really critical, especially for women in science to have day care.”

Next year, the laboratory will open a new $5 million on-site child care center through a partnership with Down East Family YMCA.

The center, dubbed The Island of Imagination, will have spots for 50 children. Jackson Laboratory employees will be given priority, but any additional spots will be open to the community.

Down East Family YMCA will run the center and parents will be charged full tuition, which Longley said is on par with other centers in the area.

She hopes it will serve as an attraction and retention tool for the laboratory, which currently has about 1,500 employees and 86 open positions.

Dumont, the associate professor, thinks it will.

“One of the things I constantly grapple with on a day-to-day basis is a society that expects me to work like I don’t have kids but parent like I don’t have a job,” Dumont said. “This is a working step toward helping employees manage the incredible burden.”

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