Elise Wesley, lead teacher in the infants room at the Mercy Child Development Center, has her hands full with a playful Wells Starrett, 12 months. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

This week, the Springfield Daily Citizen and KY3 News are spotlighting the region’s child care crisis. It is a multifaceted problem, and some local experts admit they don’t know where to start to solve it. That’s because every angle to the issue presents challenges. 

The Daily Citizen is addressing one challenge at a time in what we’re calling the solutions series, in which we present the problem, some potential solutions and what might stand in the way of success.

The problem: Child care accessibility is forcing people — mostly women — to make a decision between working and staying at home with their children. According to a 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of Missouri parents, about 9 percent of those surveyed said they voluntarily left their jobs due to child care issues and 61 percent of the respondents said they missed work or were late because of child care issues. 

A solution: On-site employer-provided child care. 

Mercy, one of Springfield’s largest employers, provides on-site child care for the children of its employees. It’s one of very few companies in the region that offers this perk, but it’s a concept that’s gaining ground with private corporations in other parts of the country.

A new, bipartisan-backed item in this year’s state budget attempts to help address this issue by encouraging businesses to spin up new child care centers, even in-house ones to support their employees. The whole idea is to get innovative in solving the lack of child care centers.

Rep. Betsy Fogle, a Democrat from Springfield, worked in concert with Republican Sen. Lincoln Hough to add $20 million in state funds for two programs that help cover child care costs for small businesses and essential workers. Businesses can submit proposals to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for up to $250,000 each for expenses and equipment related to child care services.

Fogle said she’s heard from several businesses, including some in Springfield, interested in becoming part of the solution by creating their own in-house day care for employees.

To Fogle, the child care crisis is deeply connected to the economy and workforce.

“This is an issue I have heard every week, if not every day, from people wanting to enter the workforce,” Fogle said. “…This is why this is so important to us. The Missouri economy lost out on $1.35 billion because parents wanting to enter the workforce weren’t able to.”

The funds were approved in the latest state budget, but the program details aren’t yet ironed out. Fogle expects the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to send out a press release once more information is available for applicants. Fogle said interested businesses can contact her office directly for updates or help applying for these funds.

How Mercy’s employer-provided child care helps families

Morgan Stevens, assistant teacher in the infants room at the Mercy Child Development Center, watches Wells Starrett, 12 months, walk toward her waiting hands. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

For Lindsay Schaefer, having the opportunity to enroll her two children in an early child care center located across the parking lot from her workplace has been a deciding factor in continuing her career at Mercy. 

“I do think that that has contributed to my loyalty to Mercy, and I know I have other co-workers that feel that way, too,” she said. 

Now the executive director of operations for cancer and medical specialties, Schaefer said she considers it a blessing that she only briefly had to look for child care outside of the Mercy system, and even then she relied on fellow employees for recommendations. When her first-born daughter was on a waiting list to receive care, she was able to get her in-home care provided by someone who had cared for other Mercy employees’ babies. 

Schaefer said she was fortunate she was never put in the position of having to decide between her career and finding child care for her children.

Schaefer’s daughter started receiving care at Mercy when she was 2, and her son was among the first infants enrolled in care after the center expanded its offerings. 

“I always joked that the Child Development Center (staff) were the first ones to know that I was pregnant,” Schaefer said. “They’re the first ones to know I was pregnant because I was filling out the form and getting them on the waiting list right away.”

Kara Ghan, longtime director of the center, said calling parents to let them know a child care space has opened up for their kid feels similar to telling them they just won the lottery. 

Nine-month-old Fletcher Smith checks himself out in a full-length floor-level mirror at the Mercy Child Development Center. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Ghan started working at the center back when the hospital was still called St. John’s, and she thought she would only be there for a summer. But she said the work culture and the religious aspect of the hospital led her to consider her work at the child care center as a career rather than a stepping stone. 

“That’s what keeps me here, is that we look at it as a ministry,” she said. “I’ve actually pretty much done everything — assistant teacher, lead teacher, office manager, assistant director, director and I just really enjoy it. I have two children that both went through the program, and went through our day care home program when they were infants. Until they went to kindergarten, they came here and now they’re 20 and 23 and very successful. And I think we did a good job.”

One of the reasons Ghan said the center provides quality care is that they have qualified staff. She said she’s been able to set the bar high on job qualifications for part-time and full-time employees because Mercy has invested resources in compensating them. 

“Really, the starting pay here for all of our teachers would probably be double than if you went to a private center or private day care,” she said. “Our pay is better than most, and then you add benefits — health and 401k. Those little day cares aren’t going to be able to provide that like we are.”

The center is licensed by the state to provide care for up to 133 children, but Ghan said it has never maxed out that number, focusing instead on keeping caregiver-to-child ratios low. The center provides care for the children of Mercy employees and in some cases for the grandchildren of Mercy employees. Ghan said about eight to 10 children now at the center qualify for subsidized care through the state. Full-time staff at Mercy get $150 discount per pay period, and part-time staff get $75 over the same period. 

A barrier:  It takes a major investment to develop an employer-provided center, and staffing is a challenge. 

Assistant teacher Morgan Stevens spends the morning in the infants room at the Mercy Child Development Center. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Ghan said that the only other centers that mirror Mercy’s in the Springfield area are at the Amazon Prime warehouse in Republic and at CoxHealth. In the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report about Missouri child care accessibility and workforce issues, CoxHealth was held up as an example of an employer that is doing it right when it quickly mobilized to set up a temporary on-site option to serve scores of working parents whose children were suddenly at-home learners during the pandemic. 

“Within three weeks, CoxHealth had found a site, passed state and local operational licensure, designed a safe learning environment, and implemented deep cleaning procedures to facilitate these children and help their employees continue to serve the community through their work,” the report states. “This structured environment operated from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and served 250 children. Beyond the success for children, employee satisfaction scores were the highest in the organization’s history.” 

The IRS allows employers to write off up to 25 percent of expenses, up to $150,000 annually, for the construction, maintenance and operation of a child care center. But a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report shows that several factors are limiting the development of on-site centers. Among them, the credit might not be big enough to incentivize the development of such a center, and child care may still be too expensive for some employees even if subsidized by the employers. 

But even at major employers like Mercy that are able to offer competitive pay and day-one benefits to prospective employees, staffing issues that plague early child care providers across Springfield arise.

Ghan said Mercy also gave raises to the child care staff last year, but a perfect storm of recent departures — from retirees to assistant teachers who graduated and moved on — contributed to a decision to put a freeze on its waiting list for the first time last December. 

Filling those positions, she said, has been more difficult than ever. Where she once had dozens of qualified applicants when a job opened at the center, she said she now has two or three. 

“I really wish I could give you an answer why,” Ghan said. “I don’t know, it just seems like COVID was the beginning of making things more difficult.”

This series is published in coordination with KY3 News. Watch the evening newscasts all this week on the Ozarks CW and KY3 News, or go to their website for related coverage.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson