Staff retention has become a major issue for hospitals now that nurses and other healthcare workers are in high demand all over the country. Some facilities have started offering onsite childcare to encourage their existing employees to stay put.
When she first found out she was pregnant in 2016, Jennifer Lucier was determined to secure a spot for her unborn child at Roper St. Francis Healthcare Learning Center where she works as a cardiovascular ICU nurse. It’s the only hospital in Charleston, South Carolina with onsite daycare. Lucier didn’t know what she would do if she couldn’t bring her child to work every day.
But there isn’t enough room for everyone. The onsite daycare program only has 130 slots for the hospital’s 5,000 employees. More than a hundred kids are on the waitlist at any given time.
Lucier’s baby was nine months old by the time a slot became available.
“We were ecstatic,” said Lucier, who also gave birth to twins in 2020. All three of her children are now enrolled in the Learning Center.
Roper St. Francis Healthcare opened the healthcare facility around 30 years ago to increase staff retention. It is one of the only hospitals in the country with a full-time child daycare program for its employees, but that is about to change. More hospitals are following in Roper’s footsteps to persuade employees to settle down.
Across all workers in the U.S., just one in ten has access to employer programs that cover all or a portion of childcare services. But the healthcare industry is much further along. Around a third of all U.S. hospitals offer childcare benefits. But there isn’t a lot of data on how often these services are available. For example, some onsite childcare centers only make room for children that are sick, so their parents don’t have to call out of work to stay home and take care of them.
Other children spend years on the waitlist.
More hospitals started offering childcare solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, so staffers didn’t have to leave their kids at home when they weren’t in school. But many of these programs have since closed. The pandemic also shuttered thousands of daycare facilities across the country, making it harder for providers to find care for their kids.
A recent study from Care.com estimated that at least 4 million U.S. workers resigned each month during the second half of 2021, nearly half of them citing that they were struggling with childcare or senior care challenges.
Nursing retention has only gotten worse since the pandemic. The number of registered nurses in the U.S. dropped by around 100,000 last year, “a far greater drop than ever observed over the past four decades,” according to a report published by Health Affairs. According to a McKinsey & Co. survey involving hundreds of nurses, 32% may leave their current position within the next year.
“People are leaving the industry because they’re not able to balance work and life,” said Priya Krishnan, senior vice president of client relations for Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored childcare in the country.
Bright Horizons is making big moves in the healthcare industry. Mass General Brigham in Boston partnered with Bright Horizons in 2021 to offer childcare services to its employees. The hospital now operates six childcare centers that are managed by Bright Horizons. Through the partnership, employees can receive additional benefits including full-time, center-based childcare, center-based and in-home backup childcare, nanny services, and even tutoring.
And the company is partnering with more hospitals across the country.
“Retention is the biggest reason they’re thinking about this,” Krishnan said.
According to Roper St. Francis, providers with children in the childcare program are much less likely to leave.
In a recent survey of parents who use the hospital’s Learning Center, 91% indicated that the childcare facility was the reason they remained in their jobs. Roper St. Francis actually loses money operating the Learning Center, but it’s still considering an expansion of childcare services as it builds a bigger hospital in nearby Berkeley County.
But hospitals still consider childcare to be a good investment.
Ballad Health — a hospital system with medical facilities in Appalachian Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina — recently announced it will invest $37 million over the next three years to build 11 childcare centers, in addition to the three it already owns. The expansion will allow the system to increase its childcare capacity from 200 slots to 2,000.
“I look at this as being a really, really vital piece of the benefits package, especially for families with kids who are infants to school-age,” said Rebecca Gomez, a clinical health psychologist at Wellstar Health System, based in the Atlanta area. Both of her children are enrolled in Wellstar’s Learning Academy operated by Bright Horizons.
“Everything about it has made my life so much easier,” Gomez said.
But hospital-based childcare isn’t usually free for employees. Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston charges all parents who use the Learning Center a weekly rate, ranging from $200 to $220, based on the age of the child, slightly higher than the market average.
Some hospital systems create a sliding scale that takes into consideration the employee’s salary. A doctor, for example, might pay more than an X-ray tech to enroll a child. Ballad Health recently polled employees, who indicated, on average, they could afford to pay about $145 per child per week.
Ballad Health is located in a fast-growing area and competition for workers is about to heat up. A new casino just opened nearby, and it recently hired 600 workers.
“We’re not just competing for doctors and nurses,” said Tony Keck, executive vice president of system innovation at Ballad Health. The hospital also needs to attract housekeeping staff and other lower-wage workers whom the casino and others are targeting.
But offering childcare to workers can make all the difference in the world.