Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

In a blow to working parents, Inova Health System is closing three child-care centers

Once a beacon of work-life balance shining in the Virginia landscape, one of the state’s major employers announced this week that it is getting out of the business of being awesome.

With little warning, the Inova Health System, which operates six nonprofit hospitals in Northern Virginia and has consistently made “best places to work" lists, said it would be shutting down its in-house child-care centers at Inova Fair Oaks, Inova Fairfax and Inova Mount Vernon hospitals. A spokesman said the centers were costing the health system, which started 2012 with $3 billion in net assets and is on a billion-dollar building binge, too much money.

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This will be devastating to about 180 families whose kids are enrolled those centers now, but it’s also a blow to all working parents who keep begging their employers for help. Apparently, the cavalry is not coming. Turns out, it’s actually retreating.

Let’s start with the basics.

Finding quality child care in the Washington area is harder than finding snow in March.

I remember when I was about to head back to work after having my first child. I compiled a list of day-care centers that looked good and began calling.

“What’s your due date?” one asked.

“Due date? My child is born. He’s here,” I said.

“Well, our waiting list is about two years long,” the woman replied.

They still haven’t called me back. That child is now a third-grader.

So the very idea of 180 families flooding the market for child care — a month after most application deadlines have passed (yes, it’s kind of like college) — is ludicrous.

“They just laughed at me when I called,” said a nurse who just lost her child care. She has booked five tours and is getting on waiting lists for at least a dozen places. Don’t forget, it costs about $50 just to get your name on a waiting list.

Insane, right?

Add to that the complications of health-care workers. Doctors, nurses, physical therapists and lab techs don’t work bankers’ hours. That was one of the beautiful things about the Inova’s child-care centers, and why it made perfect sense for the hospitals to provide such a resource.

The centers have operated for 30 years and have been a primo recruiting tool for the hospitals, which tout them as a way to boost employee retention, productivity and happiness.

I talked to about a half-dozen parents affected by this abrupt decision. Most of them were too fearful of losing their jobs to let me quote them by name. Some were recruited right out of school and made the decision to go with Inova largely because of the child-care centers.

“My supervisor’s kids, who are now in college, went there,” said a worker who pointed to the longevity of the child-care center’s employees and, in turn, the longevity of women’s careers.

“I wouldn’t have been able to stay in my field the way I have without the center,” a woman who has been working at Inova for 10 years told me.

So why is Inova closing them?

“Last year, Inova spent more than $1 million more to operate the center than we brought in from tuition,” Inova spokesman Tony Raker said. “Inova looked to work with other child-care providers to maintain the program, but efforts at partnership were not successful.”

Let me get this straight. A nonprofit hospital system that had an operating income of $216 million is killing one of its acclaimed benefits to save a mere $1 million?

“I don’t know how they’re losing money. It’s not subsidized — we pay about the same that it costs at all the other centers in the region,” one worker told me. In fact, it’s on the high end. One worker said she pays $45 for a five-hour day. That’s $9 an hour, or $360 for a full-time, 40-hour week. According to a day-care survey by Northern Virginia Magazine, the range is $195 to $360 a week, with an average at about $250 a week for full-time care. How could Inova possibly be losing money on this?

The closures also come at a time of huge growth for Inova.

The $1 million shortfall “seems so small to me, given that Inova recently broke ground on a new $24 million wing at Mount Vernon and a $26 million expansion in Lorton,” one parent said. “It’s a huge blow to our family and to those of many other employees. And if you ask me, it’s emblematic of how big corporations are squeezing more and more out of their workers at a time of record earnings and profits.”

Maybe it’s all about the Benjamins. “This space will be used for something else which will generate more dollars” than a child-care center, one nurse predicted.

Raker said that “only 1 percent” of workers at Inova use the center. True, 180 is a pretty small number when you look at the system’s entire workforce. But what they’re not counting is 30 years of families who were kept whole because their kids passed through those child-care centers and the future families that won’t get a chance to enroll their kids.

Whatever the reason, there’s a bigger message being sent about making the American workplace friendlier to families, especially stressed-out working moms.

“It just feels like we’re stepping back,” said a physical therapist whose delicate work-life child-care arrangement has just crumbled.

Between Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s call to end telework and the end of a nationally known, exemplary child-care system, women are getting the message from corporate America that it doesn’t care much about our struggles.

Happy employees and smiling kids regularly graced the pages of Working Mother Magazine when Inova was ranked among in the nation’s top 100 places to work.

Now? It’s just another place that doesn’t want to be awesome.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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