Editor's note: This commentary is by Adeline Druart, who is president of Vermont Creamery.
When I look around the table of Vermont Creamery’s senior leadership, three of the seven team members are women with children age 5 or under, and two are men with babies less than a year old. This isn’t an accident or happenstance; we have worked incredibly hard to create a workplace that is accessible to women and supportive of new parents. We know that diversity of perspective has been key to our success and part of what made us so nimble and creative as a growing business, and we believe that a successful future depends on continuing to build an inclusive and diverse workforce. I believe we still have work to do.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated what was already a serious barrier to economic security for Vermont families with young children. Many of our employees are challenged to find openings in child care programs for their kids, and struggle to afford the rates. They manage with a hybrid of options: hours at center or home-based programs combined with family and friends. Before the pandemic, the ripple effect of one snow day created what felt like significant challenges. Now we’ve had weeks of uncertainty. We fear more employees will be forced to leave or reduce their hours.
We are fortunate to be growing as a business, and one of the most critical sticking points we face in planning for future growth is a lack of child care for the workforce we need. An even greater child care shortage due to Covid-19. Our cheese and butter production demand nearly round-the-clock operations with limited flexibility in scheduling. We know that working mothers and single parents bear the burden to reduce their hours or leave the workplace entirely to care for children. We cannot allow this pandemic to further disadvantage our female workforce. In our state, we have jobs waiting, but without child care many employees have been unable to return to fill them. In short, child care drives the hours and positions employees can accept, not the other way around. With the current unemployment rate jumping to 15.6%, our state is facing a major challenge to economic recovery. We cannot simply talk about restoring the economy and reopening businesses. We must adequately fund the child care system so employees can return to work.
This pandemic has accelerated inequalities in the workforce and within the child care industry. Early educators are primarily women and women of color who are underpaid and have little opportunity to advance in their profession. They are now being asked to do the same work in newly challenging conditions. We can agree that all children deserve access to high-quality birth-to-5 care. But as a state, we have not invested enough in the child care programs and early educators who do this vital work.
Rebuilding the child care system is crucial for individual families and our current workforce. It is also an investment in Vermont’s demographic future. This pandemic has brought many harms, but it has also opened our eyes to new opportunities. For many, remote work is now possible and young families are considering moves from urban to rural life. Vermont can attract those families and child care would lay the foundation for them to build and grow their future here.
Vermont Creamery has a culture of supporting our employees’ family needs, but we cannot solve this problem alone. As a state, we must commit to high-quality child care for all Vermonters. This is why we signed on to Let’s Grow Kids’ policy statement calling for immediate and significant additional investments of CARES Act funding in Vermont child care programs – both to support programs in safely reopening and to strengthen the industry long term. I encourage you to join us and the more than 800 Vermont individuals, early childhood education programs, business leaders, and statewide organizations that have signed on so far.
We cannot return the child care system to the state it was in before the pandemic. We must rebuild a stronger system that values and pays for the quality of care each child deserves. This is the path to a brighter future for our children, and the workplace equity we’ve worked so hard to attain.