Have a baby and keep a job? It won’t be easy in Portland

Our intrepid (and expecting) research editor finds the child care search involves long waiting lists, costly fees and no certainty of securing a place before she goes back to work.

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This summer my partner and I toured a trendy Southeast Portland day care center in the hopes of finding suitable care for our soon-to-be-born baby. Along with another expecting couple we heard about the facility’s progressive educational programs for infants through pre-school, healthy vegetarian meals and emphasis on outdoor nature activities.

Despite the cost – the day care charges approximately $1,400 per month for four days a week, roughly the going rate in Portland for infant care – it was the kind of place we thought would be ideal for our baby. But as we talked to the director about enrollment, it became clear the chances of securing a place by the time we return to work from maternity and paternity leave were virtually zero. The waiting list was more than a year, possibly two.  Couples that are not even pregnant, but trying to conceive, even call to see if they can get on the waiting list, the director said.

She suggested we look for a nanny instead.

We continued our search. But we soon found the situation was the same everywhere we went in Portland. We were confronted with long waiting lists, costly fees, and no certainty of securing a place before we go back to work.

It is an extraordinary stressful situation for working parents, and one that is particularly acute in the U.S. where short federally-mandated maternity/paternity leave and lack of government subsidies for child care leave parents in a bind. Expectant mothers and fathers are forced to look for day care early – often as soon as they find out they are pregnant – since maternity/paternity leave is so short. The U.S. requires companies that employ 50 or more employees to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy, care of a newborn, or adopted child. 

This is relatively short compared with other western countries. I am British and I can’t help but feel envious that women in my home country can take a maximum 52 weeks statutory leave.

And some parents are not even able to take the full 12 weeks leave because they can’t afford to. The U.S. is one of only a few countries in the world that does not offer mandatory paid parental leave (the U.K. guarantees 40 weeks of paid maternity leave, Canada 15 weeks, and Mexico 12 weeks).

In Oregon, the cost of day care is so expensive relative to average wages that it is unsurprising new mothers choose to drop out of the workforce. In fact, the state is one of the least affordable for infant and pre-school day care.  It ties in second place with Colorado as the most costly state in the nation relative to median income for infant care, and the third mostly costly state for center-based care for a four-year old, according to ChildCare Aware of America, an advocacy group.

Despite the gloom, the situation for working families does seem to be improving – and businesses are leading the way. In the September issue of Oregon Business magazine our cover story ‘Baby. Boom!’ looks at how a new Portland co-working facility for mothers of young children – Women’s Plaza – is transforming the business landscape.  The piece also examines the trend toward companies expanding their child-care benefits.Netflix said in August it would offer a year of paid leave for new parents. And smaller, local businesses are following suit. Local ice cream chain Salt & Straw now offers three-months paid parental leave. Restaurant chain Laughing Planet Café this year started offering 12 weeks of maternal/paternal leave for new parents at full pay. Owner of Laughing Planet Franz Spielvogel said the new benefit is a positive tool for recruitment and employee morale.   

These are the kinds of innovative parental leave and child care  benefits that companies may increasingly offer to employees with young families. Yet, these workplace policies  are still rare. In Oregon only two per cent of employers provide child care benefits, according to a 2013 report by the Oregon Employment Department, Workforce and Economic Research Division.

We still don’t have day care for our baby. We are in a state of limbo that many expectant working parents in the Portland area experience. It is a situation employers can alleviate. By offering longer paid leave for new parents and subsidies for day care, companies will likely find their employee retention and morale go up. It also puts businesses at the forefront of the new shift in corporate culture towards better work/life balance.