Editor’s note: This commentary is by Nicole Grenier, who is the owner of Stowe Street Café in Waterbury. She also serves as a board member of Main Street Alliance, a Steering Committee member of the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance, and a State Advisory Council member for Building Bright Futures.
As the mother of two young children ages 3 and 9, I have had firsthand experiences with the incredible challenges of accessing affordable, quality child care here in Vermont.
As a former administrator of early childhood mental health programs, I have also had firsthand experiences with how expensive it is to run a quality child care program that meets the needs of the children and families it serves, while struggling to pay its employees fairly and still somehow maintain rates that are affordable for families.
As a former supervisor of 45+ employees serving 100+ children and families at risk, I can honestly share that I have never known any parents, regardless of income, education or employment, who have not struggled to find openings at the best child care they could afford. Most parents have thanked their lucky stars to have at least found quality care at all, despite the relative financial hardship they incurred.
Thanks to the hard work of the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance and Let’s Grow Kids; most Vermonters — even those without children — are by now aware of the severe shortage of affordable, quality child care and the urgent need to invest funds where there is proof of the highest rate of return. Gov. Phil Scott has, in fact, made this a top priority of his administration and along with many other parents and providers across the state, I am truly grateful for his attention and commitment to this issue.
The fact is, that the majority of working Vermonters are employed by small businesses that, like mine, cannot afford to provide such a benefit on our own without the support of a state-managed program.
At the time my children were each born, I was fortunate that my employer could afford to generously offer benefits that paid for at least part of the time I took to be home to care for my infants. Without this benefit, I would not have been able to afford to be home with them during this critical time, and I would have needed to begin accessing infant care almost immediately. Not only is infant care the most expensive type of child care, it is also the least available type of child care across Vermont.
The proposal for a paid family and medical leave insurance program is a critical piece of Vermont’s complicated child care puzzle. With this proposal, all working Vermonters would have access to a job-protected paid leave for up to 12 weeks to welcome a new child, to care for a seriously ill loved one or to take time to recover from their own serious injury or illness.
Paid family and medical leave Insurance would allow working parents to piece together up to six months of paid leave time between them to be home with their new child, which is not only critical for the best outcomes for the entire family, it would simultaneously reduce pressure on the already overwhelmed child care system by allowing parents to not require infant care for up to the first six months.
Even if I will never personally benefit from having access to paid leave to care for a new child, like all of us, I still face the likely need to at some point take time away from work to help care for an ill parent or other loved one, or recover from my own potential serious injury or illness.
As a small business owner, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that my hardworking, valuable employees also have the ability to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones without incurring a significant financial hardship or feeling torn between having to choose between family and work.
The fact is, that the majority of working Vermonters are employed by small businesses that, like mine, cannot afford to provide such a benefit on our own without the support of a state-managed program. At the same time, it is also true that even the largest and most successful of Vermont’s corporations stand to benefit from such a program by reducing their expenses while supporting their employees.
In addition to addressing the high costs of child care, Gov. Scott has declared the need to attract and retain more young people to the state while making life more affordable for all. A family and medical leave insurance program supports all of these points. This program will go a long way toward helping attract and retain young professionals and families, which will contribute to a thriving, healthy Vermont economy and allow Vermont’s small businesses to become more competitive employers.
I support this proposal as a hard-working Vermont mother, business owner, and early childhood advocate and I believe that it will significantly contribute to healthier Vermont families, businesses and our economy.
I respectfully encourage the governor to keep an open mind to this proposal as he considers the facts of a family and medical leave insurance program and I am confident that we can work together to find a path forward.