A pilot program matching employer contributions toward employees’ child care costs could help at least 25 families in the coming year, a United Way coordinator said this week.

The program is a partnership between United Way of Door County and the Women’s Fund of Door County. It will match up to $150 per month of participating employers’ contributions for eligible full-time employees, for a total benefit of $300 per month. For part-time employees, the match is $75, for a total benefit of $150 per month.

To be eligible, a family’s income must be at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, based on household size. Employers must apply to participate in the program.

The pilot program was inspired by a similar, statewide program launched earlier this year by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, said Jess Holland, United Way’s child care community coordinator.

The state program, called “Partner Up!,” allowed businesses to apply for grants to help them support employees’ child care costs. Three Door County businesses have been accepted across two rounds of applications: Door County Eye Associates, J&B Custom Products and S&B Farm.

United Way knew that only a certain number of Door County businesses would be able to participate in the state program, and it and the Women’s Fund wanted to develop a local option, Holland said.

“I’m really happy to provide an avenue for employers to offer a childcare benefit,” Holland said. “We’ve heard from employers that they know this is a workforce issue, and therefore it affects their business, but there isn’t really a good tax incentive to offer a child care benefit. Just like the housing crisis, it’s overwhelming for businesses to take that on as their issue, because that’s not what their business is in.”

There are a few differences between the local and state programs, Holland said. The local program has income restrictions for employees, whereas the state program does not.

The state program also pays more. The amount it disburses to child care facilities is based on what it calls the “true cost of care,” Holland said – an estimate of the true value of child care, even if that amount is more than the child care facility charges.

“The child care business model is broken because it relies on what families can afford, which is not what (child care workers and facilities) should be paid,” Holland said.

“I wish that we could do that,” she said of the higher payments. “But to start, the pilot program is just doing a flat payment – it’s not necessarily to cover the entire cost of somebody’s child care expenses, but to help with the affordability.”

Perhaps most significant, the local program will work with a broader range of child care facilities. The state program only works with child care facilities that are licensed or certified, Holland said.

Those categories refer to complying with different levels of regulation from the state government. For home-based child care, certified facilities can care for up to three children not related to the provider. Licensed home-based facilities can care for up to eight children. Group child care facilities also are licensed; they care for nine or more children.

United Way and the Women’s Fund wanted to expand the options for the local program, Holland said. In addition to child care facilities that are licensed or certified, the local program will work with child care offered by parochial schools. It also will work with home-based child care facilities that are not licensed or certified but meet requirements set by the program, which include background checks and training.

The pilot program will run for nine months, Holland said, during which United Way will collect information to assess its success and sustainability. United Way plans to expand and continue it if all goes well, she said, and the Women’s Fund also is interested in continuing it. The groups could look toward growing the program with wider community financial support and other granting organizations, Holland said.

United Way has opened an application window for employers to apply to participate in the pilot program. Applications are due Oct. 31. Interested businesses should contact United Way.

The approximate location of a planned new building for the Door Community Child Development Center is seen in Sturgeon Bay on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Photo by Andrew Phillips.

United Way makes progress with home-based child care

United Way also has made progress with its other child care efforts this year, Holland said.

Among the most significant developments is a planned new building for the Door Community Child Development Center in Sturgeon Bay. The new facility will allow the center to care for an additional 60 children, Holland said. That would nearly double its current capacity of 83 children, according to state records.

Funding for the new building came from a $3.5 million state grant that United Way received, in partnership with several community organizations, in December 2021.

Since Holland started with United Way in January (her position was created as part of the organization’s expanded child care efforts in recent years), she said she also has focused on connecting with home-based child care facilities, especially those that are not already licensed or certified.

“If they're not licensed or certified, there hasn’t been a central place for them to advertise, network or get support,” Holland said. 

“Through the different initiatives we’ve put out there to support home-based providers, I think we have reached 20 of those, which is 17 more than were known at the beginning of the year,” she added. “I’m really excited about that.”

United Way is creating a directory of child care providers for families, Holland said. It will include not only licensed and certified facilities but those provided by parochial schools, as well as home-based facilities that are not licensed or certified but have passed background checks.

“What we have done in the last nine months is try to increase the accessibility and transparency of where child care is provided in the county,” Holland said.

United Way also is putting together activity kits and toy kits for home-based child care facilities, she said. Thirteen facilities have requested them, and they serve a total of 70 children.

Expanding access to funding for facilities, parents

Holland said she also sees progress when it comes to getting more home-based child care facilities licensed or certified. When facilities go through that regulation process, it provides a level of assurance about quality and safety for parents, she said, but it also means the facility has access to administrative and funding support from the state.

When a child care facility is licensed or certified, parents who send their children there also can receive support from the state-run Wisconsin Shares program, which funds a portion of the cost of child care for families with financial needs.

Holland said United Way has been supporting one new home-based child care facility that’s in the process of being certified. When that process is complete, she said, Door County will have one licensed and three certified home-based facilities.

United Way has had two networking events for home-based child care providers, Holland said, allowing those whose facilities are not licensed or certified to hear from licensed and certified facilities about the benefits of going through the regulation process.

“We’re hoping next year to have sort of a regulation fair to really make it as easy as possible for folks to do that,” Holland said.

United Way also is offering to reimburse home-based child care facilities for any costs associated with becoming licensed or certified, such as fingerprinting or the creation of an LLC.

“The funding is time-limited, and without some greater (state and federal) support, we’re going to just continue to rely on these local stopgaps that may not be as self-sustaining.”

Jess Holland, United Way of Door County Child Care Community Coordinator

Long-term funding is a remaining question, Holland said: So far, most of the backing for United Way’s child care initiatives has come from one-time Covid relief money.

“While we’re launching things, we’re simultaneously looking for alternate funding sources to make them sustainable,” she said.

Holland said she would like to have more listening sessions with elected officials representing Door County, to advocate for more state and federal support for child care.

“The funding is time-limited, and without some greater infrastructure support, we’re going to just continue to rely on these local stopgaps that may not be as self-sustaining,” Holland said.

“Even though Door County is great at coming up with creative solutions and meeting the needs of our communities, we can’t do everything all the time,” she added. “It’s an issue beyond Door County.”