Women in Business: Daycare dilemma

On-site child care is great for working mothers, but few workplaces take the step

Fanny Chow, a former child-care worker at Ritchie Bros. in-house child-care centre, kneels to play housecleaning with two young children at the centre | Ritchie Bros.

In 2009, shortly after Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers moved into its new building in Burnaby, it did what many companies dream of but few manage: opened an on-site child-care centre. The decision arose from an employee survey asking what amenities they would most value in their new space, says Megumi Mizuno, the company’s director of human resources.

When the question of child care was raised, the chorus was unanimous.

“Overwhelmingly, everyone said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes,’ because you read the news. You hear about the lack of child-care spaces in the Lower Mainland, so we knew it was a problem.”

Mizuno had one young child herself and was comtemplating having another. “Our CEO at the time had fairly young children as well. He said, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ So, we made it happen.”

The spacious care centre – with its natural wood decor, floor-to-ceiling windows and architecturally designed outdoor play spaces – was an instant hit, particularly with women on staff. Not only did it relieve them of the search for quality child care, which sometimes prevents women from returning to work, it also allowed them to check in on their children during the day.

“If you’ve come back to work and you’re still breastfeeding you can pick up your child, breastfeed them and then bring them back, so you don’t have to worry about things like that,” Mizuno says.

For Brandy Turner, director of corporate accounting for Ritchie Bros., the child-care centre provided peace of mind after the birth of her first child.

“The daycare definitely played a role in helping me come back. It’s a lot easier knowing you have quality daycare and the kids are … in the same building as you.”

Her daughter attended the centre from age one until she went to kindergarten. Turner saw all her Christmas concerts and Halloween parades and admired her artwork hanging on the centre wall. “It’s easy; you just go downstairs and there it is, and you don’t have to miss any of that with your kids.”

The centre also makes good business sense, Turner says.

“There’s an untapped pool of mothers coming off maternity leave. A lot of them do want to go back to work. We get a lot of talent coming back because they want their child in our daycare.”

The Ritchie Bros. experience shows on-site child care is in huge demand. But few companies take the step, deterred by the cost and lack of expertise in operating a daycare.

A lot of companies think it’s a good idea to provide on-site child-care, and some go so far as to try, says Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, a group pushing for $10-a-day child care. “But it typically isn’t a good idea.”

To keep a child-care centre full, a company needs a constant stream of babies. Most employers, unless they are hospitals or universities (the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University each have popular child care programs) are nowhere near large enough, says Gregson.

“What ends up happening is they start out filling it with their own staff and end up having to fill it from the community at large,” she says.

By providing the space, a company ends up subsidizing child care for non-staff members, Gregson says.

Ritchie Bros., which has about 500 employees working at its Burnaby office, occasionally admits children from people on staff in businesses nearby, but charges a higher rate for non-staff.

“I wouldn’t say that our child care is inexpensive, even with the subsidy. But it’s high quality,” Mizuno says.

Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, agrees providing quality, affordable child care near the workplace can help women return to work after having children.

“But I don’t think it needs to be employer run,” Berdahl says. “I think that’s one of the impediments to employers setting these things up: liability, cost and management issues.” She says the government could work with groups of employers to set up child-care centres.

Going it alone was not an option for Coast Capital Savings credit union, which wanted to offer child care to staff in its new Surrey Central location.

“We’re not equipped to do it. It’s a whole other business,” says Lyne Moussa, the credit union’s manager of wellness and safety.

Instead, Coast Capital put out a call to Kids & Company, a private child-care operator, to open on another floor of the building. Coast Capital pays a membership fee ensuring its staff certain priority access to the child-care service.

“Anyone who registers is guaranteed a space,” Moussa says. Drop-in service is also available to cover child-care emergencies, she adds.

The uptake among staff was not as high as Moussa had hoped, due primarily to cost. “There are a lot of options and it’s not cheap.”

Kids & Company has child-care centres throughout the Lower Mainland and in downtown Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, but hasn’t been able to set up in downtown Vancouver.

“Would we like to have a location downtown and make that work? Absolutely,” says Linda Starr, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

Child-care regulations are strict and difficult to satisfy in an expensive real estate market. Each centre is required to have a specific number of windows and separate outdoor spaces geared to specific age groupings. “It’s very, very tough to meet,” Starr says.

The City of Vancouver is looking for ways to add more downtown locations to Vancouver’s existing 20,000 child-care spaces. The city uses development fees to open new child-care spaces. But finding the right locations can be a challenge.

One of the most innovative plans afoot is to open a child-care centre on a parkade roof in Gastown, says Mary Clare Zak, the city’s managing director of social policy.

In Vancouver, where daycare costs can run as high as $2,000 per month, child care is the second-largest expense after housing, Zak says.

The subsidized rate for Ritchie Bros. employees is $1,085 per month for infants and toddlers, less for older children. Non-employees pay $1,400 per month for the same age cohort.

Cost and convenience considerations aside, there is a softer, less-mentioned benefit to on-site child care, says Turner of Ritchie Bros.

Having children around really boosts morale, not just for parents, but for the whole company, she says. “Kids really brighten you up. They take away some of the seriousness.”