Returning to the office, childcare and transportation costs worry workers
Working parents face serious challenges in the wake of the pandemic, but access to quality childcare and public transit is not unique in the age of COVID-19 .
A roundtable Tuesday hosted by the Illinois Prairie Foundation’s Women to Women Giving Circle brought together experts and concerned citizens to discuss potential solutions for families hanging by a thread.
According to Becky Heerdt of the Child Care Resource and Referral Network, child care in a licensed facility costs the average McLean County family $300 a week for a single child under age 4. Home care may be slightly cheaper, but for many families with more than one child, the price may be unsustainable.
During her presentation, Heerdt said families often face a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the benefits of working when a large percentage of their salary is spent on child care. Despite high payouts for working parents, Heerdt said child care centers struggle to maintain a workforce.
“Being a child care provider is a very stressful job because there are so many things to balance,” Heerdt said in an interview with WGLT. “Between teacher, and if there’s potty training that needs to continue, feeding the kids and playing the social worker role – there are so many roles.”
Heerdt said the state of Illinois is considering allocating funds to ease barriers to access. But in the meantime, many child care centers are unable to fill to capacity.
“A lot of classrooms are closed right now in some centers because they don’t have quality staff,” she said.
Connecting workers to occupations in need
United Way of McLean County’s Workforce180 initiative targets in-demand fields by providing financial support to McLean County residents who hope to enter higher-paying professions. Fifty people have joined Workforce180 since its inception in 2019.
Director of Community Investments Kathleen Lorenz presented case studies as part of Tuesday’s program. She said the impact of Workforce180 not only benefits individuals, but also impacts the local economy. This is especially true if getting a better paying job reduces a family’s need for public assistance.
“It can cost up to $25,000 a year in public benefits,” Lorenz said after the panel. “If we can help people find their way to being more stable in their source of income, we can wean them off the cost of these utilities and they can start earning an income of say 35, 45, maybe even 50 $000 to start. ”
What about in-demand jobs that don’t pay enough? Lorenz lists childcare and early childhood education among other fields like health care, emergency services like paramedics and firefighters, and trades like welding on the list of professions that Workforce180 helps people enter.
But as Heerdt reiterated, child care workers face serious challenges of their own.
“Nursing assistants are underpaid. Many of them have no health benefits. Many of them are not offered any type of pension plan,” Heerdt said. “Yet their demands for education keep increasing.”
A small but impactful solution could make it easier for some McLean County residents to get to work.
New Connect Transit programs to improve access include the new Cobalt Route which is scheduled to begin in October and serve West Bloomington and Rivian.
Connect Transit administrator Judy Buchanan, who also spoke on Tuesday’s panel, said the company is looking at several programs that could make it more possible to get from point A to point B without a vehicle.
“While we would love to have more stops and more routes, that’s just not possible right now,” Buchanan said.
Ongoing programs include micro-transit service from any location to a fixed bus stop on request.
“One of the things we keep hearing from people is distance,” Buchanan said, “how many blocks they might have to walk to get to a bus stop.”
A potential partnership with Enterprise could also provide shared ride service to workers outside of Connect Transit service areas.
“Some of our biggest employers in the community, we know, have people coming from outside the city limits,” said Buchanan, who likened the idea to a now-defunct van service that State Farm’s corporate headquarters provided employees living in Clinton.
“The van pool idea worked at one point,” she said. “Is it time to bring him back?”
In May, the Normal City Council approved $200,000 in annual funding through 2026 from the U.S. bailout for the Micro-Transit Program and the Cobalt Route. Buchanan said micro-transit and van pooling are still in the exploratory phase.