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With child care harder to come by, this CEO brings her baby to work

The Cariloop Team | February 22, 2024

By: Alyssa Place, Employee Benefit News

When Jennifer Barnes’ child care falls through, she doesn’t need to miss work and disrupt her entire day. Instead, she brings her one-year-old son into the office with her. 

As the CEO of accounting firm Optima Office, Barnes is in a unique position to create policies that benefit her employees — and herself. Since becoming a mom in 2022, she brings her son into work with her often, and has even created a formal policy allowing all employees to do the same when the need arises. 

“Over the years, I allowed a number of children to come into the office when their parents needed them to and it was never really a big deal to me,” Barnes says. “Now I have a 15-month old and it was a natural fit for me to bring him into the office. If they’re not disruptive, if somebody needs to bring their kid to the office for the entire day, that’s not a problem. Just don’t take advantage of the flexibility.” 

Barnes says she brings her son Mason into work with her two or three times a week, often for a half day before her husband or mother-in-law picks him up. He’s such “a good little boy,” Barnes says, and employees get a kick out of playing with him when they need a break from work. 

“They all love him. They think he’s so cute and he’s playful,” she says. “Of course, he’ll cry, and I shut my office door. But many of them have actually said he brings some excitement to the office.” 

The policy has been a success for Barnes as a working mom, and as a leader who’s proving that child care can be incorporated successfully into an employee’s day-to-day life. It’s a lesson becoming increasingly pertinent, as child care becomes harder to come by, more expensive and yet another distracting stressor for working parents. 

“It is virtually inaccessible,” says Julie Devine, chief growth officer at Cariloop, a caregiving support platform. “Waiting lists are miles long, and the supply for caregivers is short. The industry is down 50,000 caregivers from the pandemic.” 

For today’s working parents, child care is often the biggest parenting stressor they face: According to a survey by Best Colleges, more than a third of parents say child care challenges have hindered their ability to succeed and advance in their careers, and 28% say their work-life balance suffers because of inadequate and unaffordable access to care. 

Even those with a steady caregiving arrangement may not have peace of mind: Four million parents were impacted by daycare closures in 2023 alone, according to data from Capterra. While a third have been able to find an alternative solution, like a different provider or nanny, a quarter of parents have had to quit their job due to a lack of care, according to children’s advocacy nonprofit Theirworld. 

“We’ve had nannies fall through at the last minute several times, or commit to working with us and then stop showing up. We’ve gone through five or six people,” says Kristin Addis, CEO of travel blog Be My Travel Muse. “We haven’t really wanted [our son] in daycare yet, so my partner and I are switching off watching him ourselves — I take the morning and he takes the afternoons. It’s definitely impacted my ability to work.”  

A breaking point for working parents

While frustrating for parents, the system has long been poised for this breaking point, Devine says. Child care providers are often underpaid, making the jobs unappealing for many workers. Additionally, insurance needs and an end of COVID-era funding for daycare centers in September of 2023 have left many providers struggling. 

“At the core of the issue is an age-old economic problem of supply and demand, and we are talking about a dry up entirely of supply,” Devine says. “Child care providers have really high costs and they need to have a lot of adults for a low number of children to meet the state maximums. They need insurance. And they can’t pay high wages as a result of that.”  

For working parents, the math doesn’t add up either — both for their own finances, and the mental energy they’re spending on balancing this load. Devine, a mother of three as well as a full-time caregiver to her elderly family member, says the burden is constant. 

“I’ve led as a mom and as a sandwich generation caregiver, I’ve led all female teams in my career — I’m leading one right now. Of the four of us, three are caring for children and parents,” Devine says. “We support each other as best we can. But you see the mental load, you see employees working their very best to meet the deliverables and the demands of their job and still progress their career. But their children come first, and they always will.”  

Thinking outside the box for solutions

Fortunately for Devine, she’s on the front lines of solving these issues, not just for her team, but for employers and employees, too. Cariloop recently partnered with UrbanSitter, and users can now access that platform’s network of care providers while still taking advantage of Cariloop’s coaching and care coordination services. Cariloop has also collaborated with employers to find innovative solutions to their care needs — one midwest employer worked with Cariloop to preemptively reserve spots in a child care center for when parents eventually need to utilize them. 

“One of our clients asked our team to build a network of daycares, where they could prepay for slots for their employees to potentially use and put those on a retainer,” Devine says. “Wherever you can find a way to help take a little bit of the financial burden away, through a stipend or a subsidy program, put your money where your mouth is.” 

For Barnes, Optima Office’s child care policy was a no-brainer, and she encourages other employers to keep working parents top of mind when considering benefits, and think outside the box of traditional solutions to age-old problems. 

“Life happens and there’s a lot of things you just can’t plan on,” Barnes says. “When I first started my first company, I said, I want to create a place where I would want to work. That means having flexibility and being kind and empathetic to your employees and treating them like humans.” 

Article originally appeared on Employee Benefit News.