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Child-care subsidy is spotty for government employees

Bobbie Stewart, who works as a a clerk at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, gets paid $800 ever other week. Child care for 5-year-old son, Bryce, can run as high as $600 a month.
Bobbie Stewart, who works as a a clerk at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, gets paid $800 ever other week. Child care for 5-year-old son, Bryce, can run as high as $600 a month. (Courtesy Of Bobbie Stewart)

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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 8:12 PM

Uncle Sam strives to be a model employer, as least for now.

That goal could take a hit with plans for pay freezes and workforce reductions, but he remains a cut above many private employers, particularly when it comes to benefits.

One benefit he provides, at least on paper and to some workers, is child-care subsidies. It's certainly a good investment to support day care for the children of low- and moderate-income federal workers.

"I think we get very good value for the money," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. "It is one way we can help working families, especially low- income working families, on the job."

Each agency sets parameters for its own program. OPM, for example, pays 70 percent of the child-care costs for employees with family incomes less than $40,000; 40 percent for those with family incomes up to $55,000 and 25 percent for employees in families making up to $60,000, the maximum.

"In these times, when federal employees are under attack for being overpaid, it is sobering to realize the large number of employees who, but for subsidized child care, would not be able to be regularly employed," said William Bransford, a member of the board of directors of the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund. It administers some of the programs.

Day care not only helps parents with their children, it also strengthens their productivity, Berry said, by boosting performance and morale and allowing them to stay fully engaged on the job.

Yet some agencies - the Social Security Administration is one - don't take advantage of the subsidy program. On paper, the Veterans Affairs Department does participate, but in reality, its program has been in shambles.

Two years ago, the subsidy for Bobbie Stewart's son abruptly stopped. The 34-year-old part-time grad school student and clerk at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond said her check is $800 every other week, and her child-care payments can run as high as $600 a month.

You don't need to be a math genius to see how the subsidy would come in handy. The money covered about 45 percent of the child-care bill for her 5-year-old son, Bryce, and was sent directly to the child-care provider. Without the subsidy, she's had to pay out of her pocket. "It's a strain," she said.

But she struggled to pay for one reason: "He's my son. I have to take care of him."

At one point, she needed a $400 loan from FEEA, which formerly administered the VA program. "I couldn't do it all, and the day-care facility was wanting money," she explained.


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