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Childcare Access, Costs Challenge Montana Parents

A recent informal survey of Missoula parents highlights some of the biggest ongoing local childcare needs and challenges.
A recent informal survey of Missoula parents highlights some of the biggest ongoing local childcare needs and challenges.

Affordable and easily accessible childcare is just as elusive in Montana as it is everywhere else in America. At a luncheon Tuesday, a Missoula County group called Healthy Start Missoula that’s supported by a federal grant laid out the challenges and offered one potential private-sector solution.

Healthy Start Coordinator, Anna Semple, says parents now have precious few infant childcare options:

"You can get on a waiting list the day that you find out you’re pregnant and still not have infant childcare the day you have the baby."

Childcare costs continue to be one of the biggest barriers for parents and providers alike.

Again, Anna Semple:

"It can cost more to send a child to childcare than it does to go to the University of Montana. On the flipside, providers are doing everything they can to pay their workers as much as they can and it’s a shoestring budget for them. It’s not because they’re raking in the money at the expense of our kids. It’s that everybody is really working hard to make the system work. Somewhere we need to figure out where some wiggle room is to ease it up on both sides."

Semple notes low wages in the childcare industry leads to high turnover and staffing shortages.

Limited hours and childcare locations are also common complaints:

“People who have enough money to pay for gas in their car are going to drive wherever they need to to make it happen. But I have seen people on the bus with a stroller and a toddler going to different places to drop kids off and then get to work. That can be a big issue."

A south-central Montana business with an in-house childcare facility was held up at Tuesday’s luncheon as one of the state’s most innovative and successful childcare models.

Susie Lalich is Human Resources Director of the Livingston-based Printing For Less.

Lalich says many employees who have kids enrolled in the company’s integrated child care program are “our highest performing employees in the company. I think a lot of that is due to, in part, the great care that their children are receiving upstairs and the fact that they can really focus on their job knowing their children are just a walk up the stairs. They can give them a kiss and trust that the providers we hire are top notch.”

Printing For Less posted $31 million in revenue last year, has a young workforce and a low employee turnover rate of just over 5 percent.

Judith Ehret directs the company’s Early Learning Center program. Ehret says her employees earn almost $14 an hour. Some are working and also taking college courses.

She says the childcare program there goes above and beyond the state’s requirements for early education.

As a result, Ehret says everybody wins:

"It all comes back to our kiddos. It comes back to us being better educators and then it circles right back around to Printing For Less,” Ehret says.

Mike Halligan says those kinds of family-friendly policies pay huge dividends. Halligan is Executive Director of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation:

"We know that millennials coming to our workplace not only want us to be a company that gives back to the community but they want to make sure that they have family friendly business practices on site; that we allow flex-hours, breastfeeding rooms, that you’re going to be able to go see your child’s play and those kinds of things.”

Participants at Tuesday’s child care luncheon were also reminded the medical and childcare providers communities can do a better job of working together to support families.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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