Jason Alley (C), children and worship pastor, Pleasant View Bible Church, talks during the LaunchPad Workforce Summit Wednesday at Westminster Hall in Winona Lake. Alley was part of a three-person panel that answered questions during the summit. Also pictured are Landon Deel (L), human resource manager, Polywood, and Todd Speicher (R), president, Instrument Machine & Development. Photo by Jackie Gorski, Times-Union
Jason Alley (C), children and worship pastor, Pleasant View Bible Church, talks during the LaunchPad Workforce Summit Wednesday at Westminster Hall in Winona Lake. Alley was part of a three-person panel that answered questions during the summit. Also pictured are Landon Deel (L), human resource manager, Polywood, and Todd Speicher (R), president, Instrument Machine & Development. Photo by Jackie Gorski, Times-Union
WINONA LAKE – The importance of adding more child care seats in the area has been a hot topic in the county for a number of years.

At the LaunchPad Workforce Summit Wednesday at Westminster Hall in Winona Lake, LaunchPad Director Sherry Searles explained why child care is an issue locally and nationwide.

She said the reason is the child care system is broken. Early learning educators are part of the lowest-paid profession and they’re the ones “raising our next generations.” Wages are low and there’s almost always no benefits available to those working in the field, and that’s part of the broken system.

She asked the way to raise wages for those working in child care is to raise the rates parents pay, but then it becomes unaffordable.

Quality is also important when talking about child care. LaunchPad wants to make sure there’s high-quality seats in the county, she said. When talking about high-quality seats, it does raise the costs to ensure the child care center hires teachers that have degrees and they’re paying for a high-quality curriculum.

She said 80% of the brain is developed by the age of 3 and 90% of the brain is developed by age 5.

“So we know that a young child’s daily experiences determine which brain connections will develop and which ones last forever. The amount of quality care, stimulation and interaction make all the difference when the child’s brain is being built. It matters where the children are while their parents are at work,” Searles said.

She said it takes a village to solve some of the issues dealing with child care, saying it’s not just the government’s job to deal with it, it’s also the community’s and businesses’ jobs to deal with it as well.

She said she wanted Kosciusko County to be an example to the rest of Indiana of how to come together to deal with child care.

The Indiana economy is being impacted by the lack of child care opportunities. Annually, there is a $1.8 billion cost to employees due to child care. Of that $1.8 billion, $1.1 billion is due to absenteeism and workforce turnover. Additionally, child care disruptions cost the state about $119 million in lost tax revenue. She said child care disruptions sidelines mothers and hurts businesses and the state economy.

Working parents with children under 5 are absent from work about 13.3 days every year due to child care issues, she said. In 2020, 11,000 working parents quit their jobs to address child care needs in Indiana. When parents can’t access child care, they can’t work, she said.

In Kosciusko County, there are about 3,000 children ages birth to 5 that need care that have parents that are working or trying to work. In 2018, there were about 1,200 seats, making a 1,800-seat shortage.

LaunchPad also looked at which seats were high-quality. Searles said the state defines high-quality seats as a program that has joined the voluntarily quality-rating system called FFA: Paths To Quality, which has four levels to the rating system. If the program scores a 3 or 4, the program is considered high-quality. In 2018, the county had 356 high-quality seats.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

Searles said about 70% of child care centers closed during the initial COVID lockdown and one-third of those centers never reopened. Kosciusko County lost 226 seats due to the pandemic.

Today, the county has 1,428 child care seats, which is a direct result of programs that have expanded and new programs.

A three-member panel included representatives of area businesses or churches that opened child care centers to help add more availability in the area.

Landon Deel, human resource manager at Polywood, said the reason Polywood got involved in child care was its employees.

“They kind of inadvertently let us know they were having issues,” he said, due to calling in sick due to not having sitters or similar issues. Polywood also had employees quit to stay at home with their children.

After the pandemic, Polywood saw an increase in the issue, so Deel said Polywood staff started looking for resources for its employees. When Polywood looked into the situation, it realized the resources really weren’t there. The company decided to step up and provide that resource in its own way.

With an open classroom and a willingness to think outside-the-box, Syracuse Elementary has become a hub for Polywood employees to access care. In addition to the Polywood early learning program, Wawasee Community Schools operates three full-day early learning programs for children in the community, ages 3-5, at Milford Elementary, North Webster Elementary and Syracuse Elementary, according to a September 2021 news release from LaunchPad.

Jason Alley, children and worship pastor at Pleasant View Bible Church, said the church has been in Warsaw for 100 years. A few years ago, the pastoral team asked how Warsaw was better off with the church being there. They looked into the needs of the community and one of the needs that kept coming up was child care.

Pleasant View opened an 85-child early learning center a few weeks ago, he said. There are 20 children enrolled as of Wednesday.

Todd Speicher, president of Instrumental Machine and Development, said like Polywood, IMD worked to accommodate employee schedules. Then the company had an employee who had worked there for six months that quit due to the person losing confidence in that person’s child care provider so he could stay home with his children.

“So when you start putting pencil to paper and start looking at your cost of what you do for training - not only the new employees, but also the existing employees who are doing the training - it really adds up,” Speicher said.

In September, there was $41,000 in training alone and of that, $5,000 was “wrapped up” in an employee that left after three weeks due to child care issues.

IMD decided to operate a child care facility at 328 N. Park Ave., Warsaw, to help its employees with child care issues. Speicher said the decision was made to have a center close to work so people didn’t have to drive clear across town because sometimes, it adds 20 to 25 minutes to your day. IMD found it would be easier to license a home. Speicher said IMD’s center will be able to handle 12 children and has six or seven registered.

Deel said Polywood has subsidized its child care program. The company also realized it had to promote its center. He also said there’s opportunities still to subsidize the program and that’s why it’s important to get more businesses together so they can lower child care costs even more.

Speicher said IMD’s center will help in employee recruitment. By subsidizing the cost of the center, it helps employees be financially successful.

Polywood’s program has been targeting children 3 to 5. More resources are required for children birth to 2 and Deel said he thinks Polywood will start focusing on that aspect of child care in the future.

Alley said his church was blessed to have several grants that helped to rehab its facility and put in a playground and cover the initial costs. Now, the church is paying child care employees and built a budget for 85 children, so now the church needs more children to be sustainable long-term.