Mississippi businesses have a $557 million problem – and if we utilize all the tools at our disposal – I think we can solve it.
But first, I want to share a story. Seven years ago, I left a job I loved in the Mississippi Delta and moved back to my hometown, Laurel, Miss., to care for my mother who was battling cancer and to spend more time with my two-year-old son. After only a few months, I was offered a dream job opportunity, but there was a hiccup: childcare for my two-year-old son, Wagner. Every childcare center that I called was full for toddlers, my mother’s health was not up to the task of caring for a busy, little boy, and my husband commuted to work 45 minutes away.
After a week of searching, I learned that a local church had a mother’s morning out program twice weekly from 8 a.m. to noon, then I found an amazing childcare program that happened to have a three-year-old slot. They were able to accept my two-year-old son the other three mornings a week after begging the director.
My story of searching and begging for childcare so that I could accept a job is not unique. In fact, it is all too common. But what makes my story unique, I was able to piece together care that I could afford.
But why does this matter?
Recently, the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance (MELA) hosted a roundtable discussion with industry Human Resources and recruitment professionals in one county in Mississippi. Over and over again, I heard that they were struggling to find and retain their workers.
It was a HUGE issue, and they had not been able to find a solution. The group, at first, was upset that no one in their community seemed to want to work, but as the conversation progressed, one person stated that some of their staff are parents. These parents have to take days off or leave work early when their child cannot attend school. We also discussed that some women had turned down job offers or left jobs because childcare was more expensive than their rent or mortgage.
It is not just happening for a few Mississippi counties. It is happening across the state. In a 2023 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 12% of Mississippi parents had to quit their jobs or make major career changes because of childcare issues, and more than half of parents in the United States reported missing work due to childcare issues in the past three months. Parent employees are not the only ones who lose out; employers face a big cost. The estimated direct employer cost due to absenteeism and turnover due to childcare issues is estimated to be $557 million.
What are the tools we might have to solve this issue? While it is a complex issue that will likely take investments from federal, state and local governments, there are steps that business owners can take now to mitigate childcare issues for their staff — offer childcare benefits. You likely think about healthcare (paid sick leave, retirement, etc.) when you think about benefits, but childcare is a newer benefit that companies are exploring and workers crave.
Currently, only 14% of Mississippi employers offer a childcare-related benefit, while the vast majority of Mississippi workers want a childcare-related benefit. Here are some of the things that the 14% are doing to find and keep their staff.
North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) in Tupelo, and South Central Regional Medical Center (SCRMC) in Laurel both offer on-site childcare to doctors and nurses. SCRMC said that this has been a huge recruitment tool for new doctors and medical staff.
For many years now, Wayne-Sanderson Farms offers onsite childcare, 22 hours a day, in their Collins, Miss. plant. It has been a big benefit to all of their employees, especially their night-shift workers with children.
Even small companies can offer some benefits. MELA, my four-person nonprofit offers a dependent care flexible spending account, which works like a flexible healthcare spending account for employees.
Teach For America — a national organization with a Mississippi presence — at one time partnered with childcare centers to offer drop-in or emergency childcare for their employees.
Some businesses also offer a stipend to offset the cost of childcare (or elder care) to their employees which can be as low as $50 a month.
These Mississippi companies are taking action, and they do not have to bear the entirety of the cost themselves.
MELA recently created a document — which is linked here — to share potential ways to support employees’ childcare needs while reducing a business’s tax burden. The document outlines some ways businesses can offer benefits and highlights both a federal and Mississippi state tax credit for doing so. By finding ways to lower costs or increase accessibility of childcare for employees while taking advantage of these credits, Mississippi employers can kill two birds with one stone and take a big step toward eliminating the $557 million problem for working parents.
MELA will be hosting five breakfasts around the state in November and December to make increasing access to affordable childcare for working parents a top issue for leaders. If you’d like an invitation, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biz Harris, MELA Executive Director