State expands regional child care program

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By EMERSON WIGAND
Capital News Service

LANSING — A program to help Michigan residents save on child care is getting a $2.5 million boost. 

This increase in this year’s budget more than doubles the $1 million appropriated to the MI Tri-Share Child Care pilot program in 2021. 

Eligible parents will pay one third of child care costs. Participating employers and the state will each pay a third. Parents may choose any licensed child care provider.

The program assists families who are not in poverty but have limited income. 

It is administered by the Michigan Women’s Commission, which identifies and tackles equity issues and makes policy recommendations, said Cheryl Bergman, the group’s chief executive officer.

Michigan women surveyed even before the pandemic pointed to the lack of affordable, accessible child care as their top issue, Bergman said. The lack of child care access pushes some to leave work for their children. As of July 2021 over 229,000 women have left Michigan’s workforce, Bergman said.

“One good thing about the pandemic is it’s shone the light on child care as an economic issue,” Bergman said. “This is not just a family issue.”

A shrinking workforce of men and women is why more businesses are interested in the program, said Rich VanTol, the director of the Great Start Collaborative at Bay-Arenac Intermediate School District. VanTol is leading Tri-Share pilot efforts in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

“This is ultimately a way to attract talent and retain it, which is very hard right now for many of our employers,” VanTol said. 

Some businesses are waiting to see more experience and results of the program that began last March, VanTol said.  

But Vantage Plastics, a Standish manufacturer, joined the program early because of  high employee turnover. It has been helpful for recruiting employees and keeping them, said company Human Resources Director Paula Straus.

“It’s a huge benefit to the community,” Straus said. “It helps the company get more workers in the door, it helps families and it helps the children to socialize.”

Vantage Plastics has three parents participating. More employees are inquiring about the program, Straus said. Another employer partner in the region is the intermediate school district for Gratiot and Isabella counties.

“We look at this as an employee benefit to retain good people,” said Martin Combs, the associate superintendent for special services. 

He hopes the program improves child care access despite a shortage of local and licensed options.

Other regional program centers are in Muskegon and in Traverse City. The Traverse City region is facilitated by United Way of Northwest Michigan

“We are grateful for the governor’s budget and the extension to move into year two,” said Seth Johnson, United Way of Northwest Michigan’s director. “We’ve learned so much, so stay tuned.”

He said there are more than five participating employers in the region.

“We still have a lot more work to do in making sure employers are aware of this,” VanTol said.

Sixteen employers have signed up across the state and five families were enrolled, according to a September Women’s Commission report. 

“We’ve been doing lots of outreach to the business community,” Bergman said. “Both in these regions, as well as other areas in the state.”

The expansion will allow two more regions to be added to the program.  They have not yet been identified. Whether the program expands to encompass more regions beyond these is uncertain. 

“It might take more state appropriations,” VanTol said. “But it seems like there’s an appetite to make this happen in Michigan.”