A preschooler reads Tuesday, April 27, 2021, during quiet time at an early learning child care center in Royal City, Wash.

Employers in Washington often find that child care in their communities determines their employees’ availability and commitment to the job.

Shake-ups in care can mean lost work and productivity.

In 2018, for example, the Association of Washington Business reported that 67% of employers experienced absenteeism among their employees because of child care issues.

For small businesses, missed hours or days because of issues with child care can be felt acutely, said Amy K. Anderson, the government affairs director for AWB and a member of the Legislature-mandated Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force.

“A larger company can absorb that a little easier than a smaller one can,” she said.

Over the past four years, she said, AWB has been helping Washington businesses better understand why child care should be a priority for business leaders, as well as the parents who work for them.

Part of that mission is sharing data, and pitching a business argument for the economically minded. Here’s what that argument looks like and how businesses in Washington are beginning to discuss and invest in child care:

Where’s the data?

In 2019, the child care task force found that licensed child care programs statewide had the capacity to care for just 17% of child care-aged children. It also found that missed work and employee turnover that year cost Washington employers and estimated $2.08 billion. A total of $6.5 billion was lost to the state economy in direct costs and opportunity costs, it said.

In a survey of 400 Washington families with children under the age of 6, the task force found examples of how that plays out among working parents. Among those surveyed, 27% of parents reported quitting work, school or training due to child care issues. Another 29% declined a job or promotion because of child care, 27% reduced their commitments to part-time and 9% reported being fired or let go because of child care disruptions.

The study was done before the pandemic, which further upended workplace and child care arrangements.

Are there parts of the state where businesses are reporting more issues than in other areas?

Anderson says rural areas, like Central Washington or the peninsula in Western Washington, have an undersupply of child care. But she said it’s a problem across the board, since 63% of the state’s population lives in child care deserts. That means the number of child care-aged children in an area far outweighs the number of licensed child care slots available.

“I think Spokane is a really good example, where you have Amazon putting in distribution centers on both ends of the county,” she said. “They’re bookending it. Those are 1,500 new jobs, full time, and one of their biggest issues is a lack of child care in the region. So you know, it’s stymieing economic growth if you look at it from that perspective.”

Bigger companies feel the impact of the widespread issue when it becomes a barrier to expansion, she said.

There has been talk at the state level about businesses contributing to the child care sector, and of the state incentivizing them to do so. What might this look like from a business perspective?

Anderson said some companies serve as great models for investing in child care. Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories offers child care on its campuses, while Dick’s Drive-In in Seattle provides scholarships to employees to pay for child care.

The late fruit grower and philanthropist Cliff Plath of Yakima also invested in child care in the state, building three early learning centers in Central Washington. Read about that more here.

“So there’s different ways to look at incentivizing businesses,” Anderson said.

Investments by businesses and leaders could be for establishing a center, scholarships for child care, or setting up a co-op model in which several small businesses support a child care option available to their employees, she said. Anderson also said Washington businesses and the government need to get creative in their support of this endeavor.

In the four years WBA has been zeroing in on the connection between business and child care, what have been the biggest strides?

“The biggest success is that the business community is now educated about the issue. They’re fully aware of it and the value is placed on it that this is an economic development issue, really,” Anderson said. It’s “An economic and workforce development issue.”

That’s not just in regards to current employees who are parents. State data show that students with foundational skills in areas like language, math and motor skills are more likely to meet standards on third-grade math and reading exams. Those are in turn indicators of whether students are likely to graduate from high school.

While parents are their children’s first teachers, access to high-quality child care programs can contribute to kindergarten readiness.

Experts say investments in early learning will pay off down the road in a stronger workforce.