Even as backup child care is more commonly offered — giving workers access to subsidized care for those times when a nanny or child is sick, schools are closed or an emergency arises — it’s still rare, with surveys of large employers showing that 9 percent of companies offer it. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Employees, however, have become increasingly vocal about their benefits. And child care has emerged as a policy talking point in the 2020 presidential campaign. After several years of expanding parental leave programs, companies are catering to their bulging populations of millennials with the next logical family-friendly perk.
“It feels like a tinder box that some event could open up,” said Ellen Galinsky, speaking as president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit that studies workplace issues. Galinsky is also a senior research adviser to the Society for Human Resource Management and the chief science officer of the Bezos Family Foundation, which is led by Jeffrey Bezos’s parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos.
According to a 2018 survey of its members, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 4 percent of employers offer access to backup child care. (Its nearly 3,500 respondents tended to hail from smaller companies, with 68 percent working for companies with fewer than 500 employees.)
The Families and Work Institute’s 2017 National Survey of Employers, meanwhile, which includes a nationally representative group of employees, found that 5 percent of employers overall — a number that’s actually lower than it was in 2005 — and 9 percent of larger employers offered the benefit. The human resources consulting firm Aon, meanwhile, reports that 16 percent of the companies it surveyed offered the benefit.
Providers of backup child care say they’ve seen an uptick in interest in the benefit in recent years. Care.com said its Care@Work program for employers is the fastest-growing division of its business. And Bright Horizons, the largest operator of employer-sponsored child-care centers, said it has seen a 70 percent increase in companies offering backup-care benefits over the past five years.
Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer credits a more vocal workforce that expects more from their employers as well as a tight labor market where employers have to do more to distinguish themselves.
But the later age that parents are having children has also played a role.
“The value of that missed day has increased over time,” he said. When it was a 25-year-old recent graduate who was missing work because of a school closure, it didn’t have as much of an impact. “Now these people are in more senior roles, later in their career, and that’s much more valuable in terms of their time lost.”
Alyssa Johnson, senior director of account management at Care.com, said the expanded parental leave some companies have rolled out could prompt them to do more on the child-care front to avoid looking like their family friendly benefits are shallow.
Meanwhile, she said, women — who are disproportionately providing care — are also speaking more openly about the problem and forcing the issue.
“What’s great about the Momazonians is they’re bringing attention to the real issues people are facing,” she said. “Traditionally, there’s been a little bit of hesitation [from women] to talk about some of these challenges." They are "afraid to not look as committed” as their male counterparts, she said.
The more-than-1,800 working moms at Amazon who form the “Momazonian” group want a benefit that typically costs employers anywhere from $10 to a few hundred dollars per employee, depending on how much it’s used and how the program is designed, Kramer said. They are reportedly expected to meet with senior management in the coming weeks.
An Amazon program manager, Sarah Schnierer, whose LinkedIn bio says she is founder and president of a group by the same name, declined to comment in a LinkedIn message.
In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman declined to say how the company would respond to the group, but said all Amazon full-time employees receive free membership to the Bright Horizons Care Advantage Program, which gives access to a network of caregivers, as well as discounts to day-care centers:
“When creating benefits, we focus on efforts that can scale to help the largest number of individuals, and work in partnership with our employees to ensure that what we are building offers meaningful support.”
But other large tech companies have offered the benefit for years. Microsoft, which has offered subsidized backup child care for more than a decade, increased its benefit in 2019, offering employees 150 hours a year of backup subsidized child-care and elder-care hours, up from 100 hours. Facebook, Apple and Google, which introduced it in 2011, also offer the benefit.
Others, meanwhile, say that while backup day care and other child-care benefits are likely to grow, an explosion isn’t likely. Carol Sladek, who leads work-life consulting at Aon, said that as more millennials have children, employer interest in child-care programs will probably see an uptick. “It’s entirely possible this could be the next parental leave,” she said.
But backup child-care benefits aren’t always widely used — people often aren’t comfortable leaving their children in an unfamiliar place or with a new sitter when they head off to work all day. And it’s likely more employers won’t want to be seen as too selective toward working parents of small children, she said, but will try to satisfy a broad range of workers with other work-life perks instead.
Workplace experts say the growing policy chatter around the issue — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is proposing a universal child-care system, paid for by a tax on the very wealthy — isn’t yet having any real effect on employers’ actions.
Galinsky says the issue will have its moment.
“The whole discussion of paid sick leave and child care now has moved away from a women’s issue and a ‘nice to have’ to much more of an economic issue and even a societal issue,” she said. “Eventually it’s going to happen, because the burden on families is too expensive, too emotionally draining, too unproductive and too shortsighted in terms of children’s well-being.”