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The Restaurant World Still Has a Child Care Problem

While some organizations have made strides to provide child care for restaurant staff, easy child care solutions are far from the norm for restaurant workers

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When Lisa Baptiste worked as a restaurant host, it was a constant puzzle finding someone to watch her 6-year-old Kennard. From Wednesday to Sunday, she’d be at the Brooklyn restaurant Beso, which serves a mix of Caribbean and American comfort food, until closing, sometimes as late as 3 a.m.; her shifts could be as short as 10 hours or as long as 18 hours. During the week, her 12-year-old daughter would help out with child care. On the weekends, she’d pay another family to watch Kennard.

“There’s no child care at that hour of the night, that I know of, in my area. It has to be somebody’s personal home,” says Baptiste. Kennard has autism, which made it harder for him, as Baptiste puts it, to live out of a suitcase for the weekend, in someone else’s home, even if it was friends or family. “My son has special needs. Some days he’s fine. Some days all hell breaks loose. So I had to make sure he’s comfortable and whoever was there was able to deal with the meltdowns. Because if not, then I would have to leave work.”

On Sundays, after finishing her shift, Baptiste would take a cab from the restaurant to pick up Kennard, carry him in his pajamas into the car (he’s a good sleeper, for which she gives thanks) and back to his own bed. Then she’d have to be up at 5:30 a.m. to make breakfast and pack a lunch before getting Kennard into the school bus.

Baptiste is hardly alone. But as per the Anna Karenina principle, every family’s challenging child care situation is challenging in its own way. Child care in America is unaffordable for most, and there is not enough of it. One can either be blessed with family help, able to afford to pay thousands a month for the most luxurious child care, qualify for and find subsidized child care, or cobble together a patchwork of solutions from available community resources. The added hurdle for restaurant workers is that many of these options are unavailable at the times they need them. Because while most of the world labors from Monday to Friday, nine to five, or is fortunate enough to have transitioned to remote work, the people who cook and serve food must do it in person, often during the night and on the weekends.

According to 2016 statistics provided by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, of the 3.5 million parents working in America’s restaurant industry, roughly 1 million are single mothers. They spend 35 percent of their wages on child care, more than 40 percent live below the poverty line and a third say they are unable to get the most desirable shifts due to child care obstacles. Cities like New York and Las Vegas do have 24-hour child care centers. But they are few and far between. Winnie, a website that helps single parents find child care, lists five such facilities in all of Brooklyn, each with a capacity between 5 to 16.

Lack of child care is a huge obstacle for parents, and for women, who take on two to ten times more unpaid care work than men, a barrier to career advancement. That’s why it is so important to the restaurateurs, businesses, and civil society groups trying to make child care more accessible to people in the restaurant industry.

Last year, Texas voters approved a local option property tax exemption for eligible child care providers, meaning that a municipality can decide to grant this significant financial benefit to organizations that meet certain criteria, freeing up their funds to provide more child care. In Austin, the non-profit Early Matters is looking to channel this into nontraditional-hours child care. Building off a 2023 study, United Way for Greater Austin was able to launch mini grants to child care providers to expand care hours (early morning and late evening). Following that pilot, Early Matters (in collaboration with the Texas Restaurant Association) conducted a survey to identify the days and times with the greatest needs for hospitality workers.

“If we want to be able to have a diverse workforce, we have to figure out child care,” says Adam Orman, co-owner of L’Oca d’Oro and Bambino in Austin, who helped draft the questionnaire. “And it has to be businesses, government, and private partnership.”

The results of the survey are unsurprising. The largest groups of respondents currently have some child care, mostly provided by a partner or relatives, which doesn’t cover all their work hours. They frequently need one or two additional days per week, particularly weeknights and weekends, and they can afford to pay $10 to $25 per shift.

Now that they’ve got the data, Early Matters has been talking with an Austin preschool about providing care early Saturday morning to mid-afternoon, for restaurant workers working the brunch shift. The next step will be to seek restaurant owners who want to secure slots for their staff for a pilot program that Early Matters hopes to launch this fall.

This initiative is rare, but it’s not the only attempt at trying to provide better child care access to workers in the restaurant industry sector. Just recently, KNEAD Hospitality + Design, which operates more than a dozen restaurants in the DC area, introduced reimbursement of child care costs — up to $1,800 per quarter — for salaried employees, which comprise 110 of their 920 staff members. And years ago, director of business development for Union Square Hospitality Group, Camilla Marcus took steps to prioritize child care for workers.

She had witnessed a pattern for mothers in her industry. “We would see employees on the right track, getting experience, starting to get to the next level, meaning a management promotion, and then child care would fall through,” says Marcus. “Then they couldn’t get to work on time. They would miss shifts. Which, as an employee is one thing, but once you get into management, the stakes get higher. And those misses are more fatal to someone’s career. I started seeing that over and over again.”

In 2019, after a year of operating her own Manhattan restaurant West-bourne, Marcus did something about this.

Marcus purchased an employer-sponsored child care package from Vivvi, a child care provider near West-bourne. Vivvi helped her access tax credit reimbursements from city, state, and federal agencies, which added up to 75 percent of her costs. A third of her staff at West-bourne signed up for however many days they needed as back up to their primary child care, and were able to use Vivvi’s flexible child care to fill in those last-minute gaps in their needs, including the ever-challenging nighttime shifts.

On top of the flexible hours and affordability, Vivvi being near to the restaurant was a huge factor for Marcus. “Most people don’t live close to their jobs. Especially in a place like New York.”

When the process of signing up employees began in the fall of 2019, Marcus hoped to see this trial studied and replicated. However, in early 2020, just as West-bourne staff had started to integrate Vivvi with their work and child care needs, the pandemic shut everything down. By the fall of 2020, unable to come to terms with her landlord, Marcus closed West-bourne. The momentum, which might have attracted other restaurateurs toward a model that could be scaled up, was lost. Vivvi has since grown to seven locations, and has customized nontraditional-hours service for a hospital client, New York-Presbyterian, with service available from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and on the holidays that most child care centers close. But it is not currently partnered with any restaurants.

While the pandemic halted Marcus’s efforts, it led to a novel solution to the child care problem for Dixie Benca, co-owner of McGee’s Scot Irish Pub in Anderson, South Carolina. When restaurants began reopening after lockdowns, child care facilities were still closed, so Benca took an underused private dining room in the restaurant and, with the addition of toys, bean bag chairs, changing tables, and babysitting staff, she transformed it into a child care option for her employees. This made it easier to attract and retain staff. It also eliminated the second commute for employees — the usual need to shuttle kids to another location for child care. Plus they could look in on them during shifts. The local Department of Social Services inspected the space and told Benca it was legal, so long as it was limited to eight children, per sitter, per shift, and under four hours per child.

Finding second-hand furniture, Benca’s expense for the renovation was about $300. Her ongoing costs are $15/hour plus meals for babysitters.

“Doing the math, it’s much cheaper than continuously hiring and training new people for serving and kitchen positions,” says Benca. Everyone who takes advantage of the child care agrees to fill in if both babysitters are sick, or if the sitter works a double and needs an hour-and-a-half break. “Either myself or another mother will sit during those times.”

Most restaurants cannot do this. They either don’t have the space, the bandwidth, or they don’t operate in a jurisdiction where this is legal. And Benca’s system does not cover every base. “We’ve not had a child with special needs yet,” she says, “so I guess we’d cross that bridge if we come to it.”

In providing an amenity to staff, Benca has also inherited many of the problems and responsibilities of running an entirely different kind of business. She’s had to develop policies for safety and security, personal items (one toy or blanket per child that doesn’t get shared), and pickups between separated parents. But for her, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

“It didn’t cure every challenge a business has employing parents, especially single parents, but it makes 95 percent of those challenges manageable.” In the last two years, Benca has held on to 18 out of 22 employees, an astounding case study of successful staff retention in an industry with a staff turnover rate of about 74 percent.

Child care is not a question of “doing the right thing.” It’s an investment in employees that pays dividends.

Between paying for external recruiting fees, job ads, HR software, interviews, administration time and training, the average cost of a new hire is estimated between $500 and $15,000, with an average of $4,700. Businesses that provide child care reduce missed workdays by 30 percent and increase employee retention by 55 percent, with an estimated return on investment of 125 percent, according to numbers provided by the think tank Nationswell.

For OS Benefits, a digital benefits marketplace for hospitality businesses like Dead Rabbit (NYC, DC, Austin), Bad Roman (NYC), and the Chloe (New Orleans), child care is as important as the other mental and physical healthcare benefits it helps provide. “Parents are choosing, do I stay in this industry or not?” says OS Benefits founder Elizabeth Tilton. “If you’re an employer that offers child care support, you’re probably drawing people in the industry that have children.”

OS Benefits includes Urbansitter in their suite of 25 vendors that employees can access. Urbansitter allows users to contract preferred vendors for all kinds of care, from babysitting to full-time nannies. Though the employee pays any fees beyond the Urbansitter membership, Tilton says the company is exploring a method for employers to deposit child care credits into employee accounts (Vivvi has a version of this, called “Care Cash,” a reimbursement that can be used to pay anyone in your caregiving community beyond what is available through a center’s fixed hours).

“There are plenty of industries that have workers working in the night that have figured this out,” says Lauren Smith Brody, CEO of The Fifth Trimester, who helps businesses retain employees through child care. Since 1993, the Toyota factory in Georgetown, Kentucky has been providing subsidized 24-hour child care to employees, and at another factory in Princeton, Illinois, since 2003. This May at the Austin, Minnesota headquarters of Hormel — the makers of Skippy peanut butter, Spam, and Stagg Chili — some 3,000 employees (two-thirds working in the adjacent plant), will begin sending their children to a just completed 13,000 square-foot facility which will be open from 6:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“When you’re looking at a profitable, high margin industry, it’s an easier conversation to have,” Brody says. “I think what is particularly challenging in restaurants is that the margins are just so slim to begin with. A large part of the problem is that most of the world is asleep when most of these people have the greatest need.”

It’s laudable, inspiring even, for any small business to consider offering child care. But it’s not practical to expect a 40-seat restaurant, where the owner needs to jump into the dish pit when they are an employee short, to figure out and build real child care infrastructure the way Toyota or Hormel can. That’s why making child care truly available to the people who need it requires policy solutions more than market-based ones.

“It’s mostly going to be an issue of public policy and law, state or federal,” says Brody. “There are other wealthy, industrialized nations that have plans that work for this.”

In Finland, publicly subsidized child care, which they prefer to call Early Childhood Education, aims for a ratio of four children to one adult. Denmark invests heavily in this too, with the availability of affordable 24-hour care. Monthly fees, including lunches, range from about $300 to $413 U.S. dollars, with an extra $15 for an overnight, or $25 per day on a weekend.

“The rest of the world has understood that it’s not about kindness,” says Brody. “It’s an economic imperative. To stay in the workforce.”

A recent study by The Fifth Trimester and Vivvi found that 59 percent of employees will stay in a job for at least four years if their employer provides on-site, subsidized, or back-up child care, and 57 percent will take on more work.

Even the United States has proven that all of this is possible. During World War II, in order to enable more women to enter the workforce and increase production, the federal government funded child care centers across the country. From 1940 to 1944, women’s participation in labor increased 35 percent.

Child care is not a question of logistics. Some employers and countries are able to make this work at scale because they can clearly see their own financial benefit. But outside of McDonald’s brief, pandemic-inspired flirtation with providing “emergency” child care, it’s hard to imagine any sizable player in the industry anteing up the capital to meet the child care needs of their employees.

So where else can the money come from? Well, the U.S. government aka “We, the People.” We’ve done it previously, and that time it helped win a war.

To this end, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, in collaboration with The First Five Years Fund, advocates for the expansion of the following federal programs:

  • The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which enables parents to claim a percentage of their expenses for children under the age of 13.
  • The Dependent Care Assistance Program (DACP), a reimbursement for child care up to $2,500 annually. The DACP also entitles employees to deduct these expenses from their pre-tax earnings, including any employer contributions.
  • The Employer-Provided Child Care Credit, a tax credit for businesses that invest in child care by building, developing and staffing a child care facility.

The goals of these policies are about helping parents far beyond the hospitality sector. But if we want to imagine what the restaurant business might look like with real government support for child care, we need look no farther than Montreal. In 1997, the Canadian province of Quebec introduced low-cost, universal child care. As of 2019, the province spends $2.7 billion Canadian dollars a year on child care, equal to 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). From the inception of this program to 2015, the participation of women with children in the workforce increased 9 percent, generating an additional $2.8 billion to Quebec’s GDP.

As soon as Emma Cardarelli found out she was pregnant, she signed up for multiple child care waiting lists. Cardarelli is the chef and co-owner of the Montreal restaurants Nora Gray, Elena, and Gia. Anywhere else in North America, the self-employed restaurateur would go unpaid for taking time off work after the birth of her child (with the rare exceptions, like Birdie’s in Austin, Central Machine Works, also in Austin, and Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago, which provide paid parental leave). But living in Quebec, she received maternity leave and parental leave benefits for 11 months. Returning to work after a year at the height of the pandemic, Cardarelli hired a nanny, for which the province reimbursed some of her costs. Once her daughter Rose was 3 years old, and able to enter the provincially funded Centres de la Petite Enfance et Garderies system, Cardarelli got a spot (with a lot of personal lobbying) in a location at the end of her street. It costs her approximately $9 ($6.54 U.S. dollars) a day, and she is only billed for the days she uses.

Without Quebec’s child care support, or what at the time was an affordable mortgage (Montreal has since gotten much more expensive), Cardarelli doesn’t think she would have the career she does, or have become a parent.

“My whole life wouldn’t work if I lived in the States. If I lived in New York, I don’t think I would have been able to be a single parent by choice. Not even in Vancouver or Toronto. Maybe in a smaller city in the States. But I doubt it. I wouldn’t be a parent.”

Corey Mintz, a food reporter, focussing on the intersection between food with economics and labor, is the author of the 2021 book The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, And What Comes After.
Adriana Sanchez is a freelance character designer and illustrator based in Los Angeles


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