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"Presenteeism:" Child Care and the workplace

Credit njxw/via Flickr

Picture this, working parents: a daycare center, right in the same building as your job. For most, it’s far-fetched. But Kirsten Gillibrand, the U.S. senator from New York, wants to change that. She’s introduced a bill to increase tax breaks for businesses that build onsite child care.

Having child care at work could make a big difference for parents like Stephanie Walsh. Walsh has barely left the house in over a week. She used to go to work every morning, as an accountant at a Southern Tier construction company. But then she had her son Jacob.

When Jacob was born, Walsh quit her job. Now she has a five-month-old, too, and she’s a stay-at-home mom. If she’d kept working, she says, “My income, a good portion of my income, would have been taken up with daycare.” It made more sense for her to stay home.

Cornell University professor Mildred Warner sees a problem here, and it’s not on Wash’s end. Walsh’s husband makes enough to support the family. Warner says it’s a business problem. She says for companies like Walsh’s, not helping employees with child care is bad business.

“The replacement costs of an employee are anywhere between 75% and 150% of their annual salary,” Warner says.

That’s for higher earners. The liberal-leaning Center For American Progress estimates low wage workers cost less than half that to replace. But even if parents don’t quit,

“They use this phrase called ‘presenteeism,’” Warner says. “I’m here, but I’m distracted because I have a child care failure, and I’m very worried about what’s happening at home.”

That means their productivity goes down. Warner says there’s a solution: treat child care as a benefit, like retirement or healthcare. Some businesses do this. They offer vouchers for daycare, a tax-free savings account or even an on-site center.

“You get employees that are more productive, less likely to leave, and have higher commitment to you as an employer,” Warner says.

But most companies aren’t buying it. Only ten percent of private-sector workers have access to child care benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the ones that do are mostly at big companies, making big salaries. Just five percent of workers in the bottom quarter of the pay scale have the benefits. That’s a problem for single mothers, who are overrepresented in those low-wage jobs. That means they’re less likely than the high-earners to get help with child care.

If, like Warner says, the benefits lead to higher productivity, why aren’t more businesses jumping on board?

“The economy, over the course of the last five or six years went through a recession and is still rather stagnant,” says Mike Durant, New York State Director for the National Federation of Independent Business. Durant says small businesses, in particular, have other things to worry about.

“Taxes being one, rising cost of healthcare being two and really regulation – or the over-regulation – of business being three,” he says.

Stephanie Walsh, the accountant-turned-stay-at-home mom, pretty much agrees. She says she never expected her company to help with child care.

“I don’t think it was really their responsibility, because they’re a fairly small company,” she says. “I just figured it was up to me.”

But single parenting is on the rise in the U.S., which means Walsh’s solution works for an ever-shrinking number of Americans.