When Jennifer Lucier and her husband found out they were expecting a baby in 2016, they immediately made three phone calls.
The first was to her mother. The second was to her husband’s family. And the third was to the Roper St. Francis Healthcare Learning Center.
That last call, she felt, was particularly urgent. Lucier wanted to secure a spot for her unborn infant on the day care’s long waiting list.
Lucier works as a cardiovascular ICU nurse for Roper St. Francis Healthcare, the only hospital system around Charleston, South Carolina, that operates a child care center for the children of its employees.
The catch is there isn’t room for everyone. Roper St. Francis employs 5,000 people, and its day care can accommodate only 130 infants and children. More than 100 children typically sit on that waiting list. Lucier’s newborn was 9 months old before an opening became available.
“We were ecstatic,” said Lucier, who also gave birth to twins in 2020. Her children are still enrolled in the Learning Center.
Roper St. Francis Healthcare opened the facility more than 30 years ago to address a perennial human resources problem: recruitment and retention. Today, it remains one of the relatively few hospital systems in the United States to operate a full-time child care center for its employees, though that appears to be changing. Some hospitals are now considering child care centers as a means of solving one of the pandemic era’s big challenges: persuading employees to stay.
Nationally, only about 1 in 10 workers have access to employer programs that cover some or all of the costs for child care services — either on the job site or off — according to a report published last year by the U.S. Department of Labor. The health sector seems to be doing more: About one-third of U.S. hospitals offer child care benefits.
But the data obscures the wide variation of those benefits. Some hospitals provide access only to backup care so parents can make last-minute arrangements for sick children. Even among hospitals that offer more robust benefits, many parents, like Lucier, end up spending time on a waiting list.
Hospitals scrambled at the beginning of the pandemic to accommodate clinical staff members who suddenly found themselves unable to both work and care for their kids. More than two years later, most do not offer permanent solutions for parents facing the country’s ongoing child care crisis. Meanwhile, thousands of child care providers, ranging from small, at-home programs to large day care facilities, have closed since early 2020, making it even more difficult for families to secure care than it was for Lucier when she first gave birth.