HOUGEN: Accessible, affordable child care is as important as ever for Colorado

As President and CEO of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, I have the privilege of getting to meet with many of the business owners in the Aurora region. The last two years have been hard on all of them, and many are struggling to reopen their doors. For many of these employers, hiring and retaining employees has been more difficult than ever due to a lack of accessible, affordable child care. 

Ask any executive and they’ll tell you that child care is a priority when it comes to retaining employees. The child care industry is the backbone of every sector of the economy. From doctors to bus drivers, every working parent needs to know that their children are being taken care of by quality child care workers in order for them to perform at their full potential. 

Unfortunately, due to restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 combined with a lack of child care staff and a lack of demand for child care due to the pandemic, many child care centers closed their doors, with many closing permanently. Those that have remained open struggle to handle the greater demand for child care, leaving Colorado’s working parents with a severe child care shortage. In fact, the most recent estimates show that Colorado has a shortfall of over 95,000 licensed slots for children under age 6. 

This situation has led to the gap in available, affordable child care in Colorado reaching a crisis level. The pandemic also highlighted the fiscal instability of child care with unexpected revenue lapses, regulatory complexities, and concerns about the cost of new health and safety requirements on razor-thin operating margins. This, in turn, means providers are unable to adequately compensate staff unless they increase their prices dramatically. 

All of this has caused Colorado to be one of the ten least-affordable states for infant/toddler and 4-year-old care in center- and home-based settings. Colorado costs are significantly higher than nationwide averages, at $12,095 versus $9,953 nationally. 

But while it was a major factor in our current crisis, the pandemic alone isn’t to blame for our loss of accessible child care. While hundreds of licensed child care slots have been cut over the last two years, Colorado has experienced a decline in availability for decades. Between 2002 and 2018, Colorado lost more than 11,600 licensed slots in family child care homes.

This lack of affordable, accessible child care directly impacts working families and employers in Colorado, as many parents have had to make the difficult choice of staying home to take care of their children instead of reentering the workforce. 

For those that have been able to remain in the workforce, many have reported at least one adverse impact on their efforts or time commitment at work due to child care problems. The predictable result: one-in-four working parents say they’ve been reprimanded, and 16 percent have been fired. 

The business leader membership organization ReadyNation released a study in 2020 that examined the economic impacts of our infant-toddler child care crisis before the pandemic. What they found is staggering: Colorado loses $2.2 billion in earnings, productivity, and revenue annually. This puts a greater burden on taxpayers in the state as well, with lower earnings leading to lower tax revenues to fund public projects.  

In order to help combat this crisis, it is vital that we support programs that directly help child care providers to open and expand in our state. Effective, well-funded policy initiatives that consider infant, toddler, and family child care, as well as innovations at the federal, state, and local levels can yield a child care system that will support a more productive Colorado workforce and economy. 

For our state to recover financially from the pandemic and continue to grow economically, we need to ensure that parents in the workforce have access to high-quality, affordable child care. If we don’t make this a reality, we will continue to see employers and employees struggle.

Kevin Hougen is the President and CEO of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce and a member of ReadyNation.
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