Commentary: Washington’s child care shortage is a business issue


One of the biggest challenges facing Washington employers today continues to be a lack of qualified workers. Even with rising inflation and growing concern about a potential recession, workforce issues remain paramount.

At the same time, one of the biggest challenges facing parents today is finding high-quality, affordable child care. Like so many of the challenges we are facing today, this was not created by the pandemic, but it was certainly magnified by it.

It should come as no surprise that both issues — the workforce shortage and the child care shortage — are interwoven.

The Association of Washington Business is taking steps to address both issues: A task force is currently working on a report about potential workforce ideas, and a new partnership called the Legislator Education & Action Project, or LEAP, is focused on child care issues. 

The AWB Institute and the Children’s Campaign Fund Action launched LEAP in early January with an event aimed at raising awareness among lawmakers, staff and key advocates throughout the state about why child care is an important issue. 

More than half of Washingtonians live in an area classified as a “child care desert.” The problem is due in part to low wages for child care workers, high staff turnover — as much as 43% per year — and thin profit margins for licensed child care providers. It’s especially pronounced in small towns and rural communities where access to specialized providers and care outside of traditional 9 to 5 working hours is limited.

The problem was made worse by the pandemic. Millions of Americans dropped out of the workforce during the height of the pandemic and while many have since returned, a lack of child care is one of the barriers preventing more parents from rejoining the workforce. 

It’s not just an issue for families, but also for employers and the economy. The lack of child care costs businesses more than $2 billion per year in employee turnover or missed work and costs the state economy more than $6.5 billion per year, according to a 2019 report from the Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force.

When people can’t find affordable child care, they leave jobs, turn down jobs, and forego education opportunities.

Fortunately, lawmakers and others are working to address it. The Department of Children, Youth and Families is requesting additional funding from the Legislature this year, which the state can afford without additional taxes, and there are policy proposals aimed at increasing the number of child care workers as well.

There are no easy solutions, but we can start by adopting policies that will stabilize families and child care programs while creating a strong foundation for a thriving child care system in the future. We can learn from other states, too, where we have seen multi-pronged solutions that include employers, government and families. It’s going to take everyone working together to ensure that child care is both accessible and affordable.

Child care is interwoven with the workforce and with other issues. It’s an education issue. It’s an economic development issue. Most importantly, it’s a Washington issue. We need affordable, accessible child care for our economy to grow.

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Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.