The following is an op-ed piece authored by Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ashli Watts
In October of 2020, I penned an op-ed about the devastating effect the pandemic was having on women in the workforce. I had been working around the clock, helping my two children with virtual school, coupled with constant quarantines, and to put it very simply, I was tired. And I knew that other working parents were as well—especially working moms.
However, almost two years after the beginning of the pandemic, we have made strides toward progress and a new sense of “normal.” Vaccines have proven to work and save lives, schools are open, and thousands attended the Super Bowl in person just a few weeks ago. My children are even excited about planning their first overnight camp after many activities have been halted for two years.
But as we work toward the new normal, there is an underlying crisis preventing us from being able to fully rebound from this pandemic. The damage to our workforce cannot be understated as Kentucky currently ranks 48th in workforce participation with just over half of our working-age population working. A factor of this trend is the struggle parents have had between child care facilities shutting down, schools being closed, the high cost of quality child care, ever-changing guidelines, and constant quarantines. This has caused many parents, particularly moms, to struggle to stay in the workforce, and employers unable to fill open positions. It has been a vicious cycle with little relief.
Of course, the workforce crisis is complicated and cannot be fixed with one simple solution, but a multi-faceted approach. As the President of the Kentucky Chamber, the state’s largest business association, but more importantly, as a mother, I could not be prouder to support House Bill 499, establishing the Employee Child Care Assistance Partnership. This program would encourage non-profit and for-profit employers to offer child care assistance as a benefit by matching employer contributions with state dollars. In doing so, House Bill 499 would lead to fewer Kentucky parents and guardians having to choose between working and ensuring their children get the care and education they need at such a pivotal moment in their development.
The bill is sponsored by the youngest woman to ever be elected to the General Assembly, Rep. Samara Heavrin of Leitchfield. Like Rep. Heavrin, I was raised by a single, working mom and we both know the importance and impact of women in our workforce. Without being able to assist working families with the cost of quality child care, we not only do a disservice to Kentucky’s children, we also stand to lose decades of strides toward equality in the workforce.
Under House Bill 499, each partnership would voluntarily submit a contractual agreement to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and if approved, the state would match the employer contribution up to 100 percent of the cost of care. This will not only help struggling working families afford high-quality child care, but it also enhances a powerful employer benefit to help attract and retain workers. A win-win. The bill sets aside dollars specifically for small businesses, which have especially struggled with workforce challenges.
In the age of an ever-divisive political climate, House Bill 499 has broad bipartisan support as the issue of being able to provide quality child care truly sees no side of the aisle. Legislators, policy makers, and business leaders have all heard from Kentuckians about the struggles of child care over the last two years. While multiple steps must be taken to address child care challenges, this bill provides much-needed relief.
Generations of women have fought to ensure their place in the workforce and have worked hard to achieve a work-life balance, even in the chaos of the last two years. While there is still uncertainty as the pandemic becomes an endemic, we can act now to show support for our working families and Kentucky children by passing House Bill 499.