College pilots new child care subsidy program

After decades of student and faculty-led advocacy to improve accessibility to child care services among its faculty, the college is launching a pilot Child Care Subsidy Program for 2016. The program provides a taxable subsidy of up to $3,000 in child care expenses to employees who have worked for the school for at least one year and earn a household yearly income of $85,000 or less. The program will be offered for a two-year trial period.

Human Resources and the Faculty Staff Benefits Committee were the major architects of the Program. Vice President of Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar shared her hopes for the service.

“We feel that this pilot program is a step in the right direction to learn more about the needs of our community. We anticipate that this pilot program will provide additional data that will be useful as we routinely review and assess our overall benefits and programs.”

She does not anticipate the pilot period to be an end to discussions about child care on campus.

“[It] is not intended to be the ultimate solution to the many conversations and perspectives on this issue,” Prescod-Caesar wrote. “After numerous discussions with our Faculty Staff Benefits Committee, it became apparent that piloting a childcare subsidy program was the best approach at this time given our current campus landscape and the available resources related to childcare,” she said.

Swarthmore has lagged behind many peer institutions in providing services that aim to alleviate the costs and hassle of providing care for the children of faculty. Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Pomona, Smith, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams are some of the schools around the country that offer such services.

Despite the college’s slack response, campus advocacy around this issue has existed for almost three decades. In a Phoenix article dating back to April of 1998, titled “Campus Staff Child Care Initiative Gains Momentum,” Janine Gibbons writes, “the question of providing adequate child care for College employees was first brought to the floor in 1988 when the Board of Managers set aside a fund of approximately $300,000 designated as start-up money for a child care center on campus.” She writes the project was dropped over concerns about tuition rises resulting from the implementation of a high quality center as well as how financially accessible it would be to faculty, and various other reasons related to general opposition of the idea.

Gibbons also describes the work of the now broken up Women’s Concerns Committee. She explains, “the committee has continued to discuss the subject of how the College could offer a financial aid program that would make care available to all employees” and how a fund was planned to be reallocated as “financial aid for child care” to “assist lower-paid staff.”

The WCC conducted a study, “Report of the Women’s Concerns Committee Study on Child Care August 1991,” that collected information on campus members’ circumstances and feelings regarding their child care services. The survey concluded that nearly 70 percent of respondents believed that the “College should assist with the child care needs of College employees” and that “Swarthmore does not compare favorably with most peer and area colleges in terms of providing a building and/or direct staff.”

Despite the efforts of the WCC, the college did not make significant strides on the issue until now. The Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) has been a group dedicated to pushing the matter forward. The group organized a collection in May of 2014 to bring forth dialogue between members of the community about how the college makes decisions. SLAP’s advocacy for child care benefits largely inspired the organizing of this collection.

According to an article written on Psalmboxkey.com, “In the previous week, SLAP and Human Resources released survey data from the dependent care survey of faculty and staff at the College. Of the 28% who responded that they used childcare, 41% of that number claimed that they were unhappy with their current childcare arrangements. More than half of the respondents preferred an on-campus child care placement.”

The meeting also intended to discuss why funding, expected to assist faculty in affording child services as described in Gibbons’ article from 1998, never materialized despite a great deal of support for the measure.

While the college is now offering a form of child care services to employees, some are still concerned about the potential limitations of the pilot program and are uncertain as to how helpful it will be.

One issue is the difference between the award being a subsidy, which is taxed, versus a benefit. Administrative Assistant to the Education Department Kae Kalwaic explained in an email to many faculty involved, including President Valerie Smith, the ramifications of the program giving out subsidies. She also expressed concern over the qualification that a faculty member’s income be $85,000 or less to benefit as establishing economic divisions.

“The idea that this is a subsidy rather than a benefit for all employees has many negative ramifications. Not only does the policy divide our community by class, in the awkward attempt to save money, the College has left the tax burden for employees to bear. A benefit, on the other hand, would not incur a tax,” Kalwaic stated. “If the College is sincere in their ‘commitment to an inclusive campus and to institute organization structures that respond to the needs of its dynamic campus community,’ (Campus Climate Assessment Project) then the institution might start with a well-funded and inclusive child care benefit.”

Kalwaic also does not find the amount to be impressive, as costs to cover child care can range between $10,000 to $20,000. She described it as a drop-in-the bucket solution.

Kalwaic would prefer the possibility for faculty to have access to viable child care options, but acknowledging that this is not the reality, she believes having an on-care campus center is possible and may alleviate the burdens of faculty finding arrangements for their children.

A childcare center, she believes, would be good for the Swarthmore community in general because of its family-oriented and hospitable nature.

In the meantime, employees may apply for subsidies during the application period from February 15 to March 11 2016. The turnout and satisfaction with the program remain to be seen.

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