Gratiot-Isabella RESD first in region to split employee child care costs through new state program

Holly Summerhill says she couldn’t be more grateful to her employer, Gratiot-Isabella RESD.

Not only does she love her job as a Mt. Pleasant High School paraprofessional, but her employer is also sharing child care costs for her infant son, Bennett.

“Full-time day care for Bennett would have cost more than our mortgage – over $700 a month,” says Summerhill, 25. “Thanks to the RESD and the Tri-Share program, we’re only paying one-third the cost. It’s really made a huge difference for our family.”

For too many working families, paying for child care is an obstacle to employment. The state launched the new MI Tri-Share Child Care Pilot Program in March in hopes of making child care more affordable for parents, while also helping businesses retain workforce talent.

With Tri-Share, child care costs are split equally between the state, eligible families, and their employers.

For example, an employee paying $9,000 in annual child-care services will now pay $3,000, the employer will cover $3,000, and the state of Michigan will cover $3,000. Participating employers will also receive a tax credit at the end of the year to mitigate the employer’s contributions.

Funded with a $1 million appropriation in the 2021 state budget, the program is operating in three regions of the state to start: the Great Lakes Bay Region (Isabella, Gratiot, Midland, Clare, Gladwin, Bay, Arenac, and Saginaw counties), as well as the Traverse City and Muskegon regions.

The bipartisan cost-sharing program is the first of its kind in Michigan.

"Every parent in Michigan deserves access to quality, safe, and affordable child care, and Tri-Share brings us one step closer to achieving that goal," says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

State labor officials say finding child care has been an issue in Michigan for years. Now 18 months into the pandemic, many child care centers have closed or are struggling to hire qualified caregivers.
Bennett Paksi loves going to day care at Children’s Discovery Academy. The academy partnered in 2020 with the Gratiot-Isabella RESD, St. Louis Public Schools and Masonic Pathways to bring affordable licensed child care to their employees.
Across Michigan, 44% of families live in a child care desert. A child care desert is any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.

All this makes it more difficult for working parents to find affordable child care to rejoin – or remain – in the workforce. The impact is even greater among women, who disproportionately carry the family responsibility for child care.

That labor shortage is, in turn, affecting Michigan’s economic recovery.

A coalition of business and advocacy leaders, led by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and state Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, R-Norton Shores, championed funding for the pilot program.

"It is a priority of mine to find innovative ideas in addressing affordable and accessible childcare. That is why I am proud to have been a part of an incredible effort to introduce this pilot program," says VanWoerkom.

The MI Tri-Share Child Care program addresses the issue of affordability head-on by bringing employers and the state to the table together as direct stakeholders, says Cheryl Bergman, CEO of the Michigan Women's Commission (MWC), which is administering Tri-Share.

COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the challenges working mothers faced well before there was a global pandemic, says Shannon Garrett, MWC’s chief strategy officer.

“Michigan’s mothers of color, in particular, have long been sounding an alarm about the unsustainable balance required to work frontline and essential jobs without the availability of flexible, safe, and affordable child care options,” says Garrett.
                   
Tri-Share is designed to help working families, also known as ALICE households – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The 2021 ALICE Report found 38% of Michigan households still struggled to make ends meet in 2019, prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees eligible to participate in the Tri-Share pilot must be employed by a participating employer, have an income above 150% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) and below 250% FPL, and not otherwise be eligible for the Child Development and Care Program (commonly called the state child care subsidy).

“Many of these families that would qualify for Tri-Share are working their butts off to make ends meet,” says Rich VanTol, supervisor of School-Home-Community Partnerships/Early Childhood Education at Bay-Arenac ISD. “But when child care costs $10,000 a year per child, many end up working just to pay for child care.”

Martin Combs, Associate Superintendent for Special Services at Gratiot-Isabella RESD. The Gratiot-Isabella RESD (GIRESD) Board of Education decided to join the Tri-Share pilot program to attract and retain quality workers, says Martin Combs, GIRESD associate superintendent for special services.

“We believe this will improve child care opportunities all across the Great Lakes Bay Region,” says Combs. “We strongly encourage other businesses to join us in piloting this program.”

Participating employers must agree to identify and recruit eligible employees, provide employer portions of each participating employee's child care costs, and maintain communication with the facilitator hub regarding each employee's continued employment and eligibility.

The RESD has seen quite a bit of employee interest in the program.

Summerhill, who has worked with students with severe cognitive impairments at the RESD since 2017, says she and her fiancé, Julian Paksi, were thrilled to hear about the cost-sharing program. Their St. Louis home is just down the road from Bennett’s day care, Children’s Discovery Academy, which partnered in 2020 with the Gratiot-Isabella RESD, St. Louis Public Schools, and Masonic Pathways to bring affordable licensed child care opportunities to their employees.

“It’s hard taking your child to day care. But it’s easier knowing my employer trusts a day care enough to put their employees’ kids there,” says Summerhill.

Thanks to Tri-Share, Summerhill’s portion is $63 per week, versus the full price of $190.

“I’m very thankful the RESD has been willing to do this for their employees,” she says. “This is a great way for employers to take care of their staff and a small price to pay in the long run for a happy employee.”
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