BY THE LOS ALAMOS AND WHITE ROCK SITE CHILDCARE PROVIDERS
Editor’s note: This commentary was sent to local media through the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce for publication. No business or individual names were submitted.
In late September, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials met with local childcare owners and directors to announce that the University of California, one of the Triad National Security parent organizations, has committed $500,000 in initial funding for the planning of a potential off-site child care facility in Los Alamos for Triad employees. A lack of adequate childcare resources was identified as a key challenge facing the Laboratory in attracting and retaining talented staff. They also announced that a possible location has been identified near the Lab. Capital and Campus Opportunity Funds (CCOF) for the LANL center would be used to renovate and equip a facility. The facility would be owned and operated by a separate entity.
This meeting and announcement came as quite a surprise to local providers since Director Thom Mason announced during a town hall meeting in June 2022 that solving the childcare challenge would be a matter of working with childcare providers in the surrounding communities to develop the needed capacity. So, after navigating care for families during COVID, enduring a loss of enrollment from the new Universal Pre-K program, and facing higher costs for goods and salaries, local providers were left feeling like they had been gut-punched. LANL officials certainly made no effort to work with local providers in the intervening time between Director Mason’s June announcement and September.
In the September meeting with providers, LANL officials again stated that they would like to collaborate, coordinate and partner with the local childcare providers. LANL officials also stated they wanted to ensure that they were not going to put providers out of business. However, there has been no collaboration, coordination or partnering since. Instead, LANL has moved forward without consideration of all the intricacies and possible resulting consequences to the childcare providers and the Los Alamos community as a whole. The impact of a LANL sponsored childcare facility, combined with the recent Universal Pre-K programs in the public schools, could easily result in possible closures of local childcare facilities that have supported the community for many, many years. The LANL daycare facility may ultimately leave Los Alamos and White Rock families with even fewer choices for care. In most cases, if just one facility closes that will be a loss of 80-100 openings for families, so it’s really a zero-sum game, most likely impacting the families not employed by LANL, since LANL will be creating 100 spaces for their employees.
On November 4, providers were contacted by the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce proposing that a Child Care Task Force be formed to work with LANL moving forward. The Task Force representatives include the child care providers (site-based & home based), Los Alamos Public Schools, Los Alamos County, Los Alamos Medical Center, UNM-Los Alamos, YMCA, Chamber and parent organization Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation – LACDC, and LANL.
On November 9, some of the site-based providers met virtually to discuss the implications of a LANL sponsored site, possible solutions and a plan for communicating with the community and LANL. It was disclosed to us at this meeting by the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce that LANL was going to issue an Expression of Interest letter imminently. Again, this is yet another instance of LANL moving full steam ahead without any input from the community or consideration for the implications of their actions.
On November 10, Triad National Security, LLC (Triad), the operator of LANL released a Request for Expression of Interest to establish a Childcare Operation in Los Alamos to local providers.
In response to this announcement, some of the Los Alamos site-wide childcare providers have come together to consolidate our thoughts and provide the following information for LANL officials and the residents and businesses of Los Alamos and White Rock to consider. It is our hope that LANL shows some restraint and takes the time to weigh the unintended consequences of their impetuous behavior, and to actually work with the local childcare providers to solve the root causes of the childcare issue.
Before Triad signs on the dotted line and provides potentially 100 new spaces for LANL employees, we would like to share our insights and expertise. This information is based on years of experience and not just a survey that was open for little over a week. Most of the child care businesses have been open for decades. Perhaps our cumulative knowledge along with other vested partners in the community can be tapped to solve this issue in collaboration with LANL. In the least, we would like the opportunity to have input into how this facility and enrollment will be structured to minimize the impact and to serve the entire community most effectively.
Please consider the following questions we are posing for LANL and the community, and proposed alternate solutions.
The lack of childcare in Los Alamos is not primarily a space issue, but a workforce issue. In the September meeting with LANL, local child care providers expressed that they had space available, unoccupied classrooms and room for growth, but have not been able to hire staff to fill open positions. This is a local issue and a national issue. This issue was exacerbated by COVID. There are 100,000 fewer child-care workers than there were before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is also not a situation that is strictly unique to child care. The community is feeling the impact of this reality—restaurants, grocery stores, transportation, etc. Fewer people are working.
The introduction of the Pre-K Program at Los Alamos Public Schools (LAPS) has also affected the local child care businesses on two fronts. First, the introduction of the 4-year old, Pre-K program in 2020-2021 and the expansion of these programs in 2021-2022 (hours & spots), eliminated 161 of the most profitable spaces for child care businesses in Los Alamos, leaving the most expensive, labor intensive care to be provided by the local child care providers for infants, toddlers and after school programs, driving the costs for care higher for infants and toddlers because these costs could no longer be spread across a larger child population.
If Universal Pre-K passes with voters this month, it will have another significant impact on childcare providers. Free universal Pre-K will be open to all 3 and 4 year-olds. This will likely result in an expanded LAPS 3-year old Pre-K program, which means more (potential) child care spaces will be filled by LAPS. The result of the expanded Pre-K program will again take additional 3-4 year old spaces from the Los Alamos providers leaving primarily openings for infants and toddlers. If LAPS matches the current 4-year old program that could mean a potential total loss of 250 spaces over a 2 year period for providers.
Second, as a result of the expanded Pre-K program, many childcares have lost staff to the public schools. With the shift in ~250 spaces from the private childcare sector to the public-school sector, shouldn’t we wait to see how this changes the enrollment dynamic before adding an additional 100+ openings?
Is LANL considering placing child care facilities in Espanola, Rio Arriba or Santa Fe to meet the needs of employees living off the Hill? In the September meeting the results were shared from a LANL child care survey that 943 employees took. The survey was available to LANL employees for just over a week. 53% of the respondents live in Los Alamos or White Rock, 20% in Espanola or Rio Arriba and 15% in Santa Fe. 52% of the respondents had children under the age of 5.
A new LANL facility will impact Los Alamos and White Rock childcare businesses and families the most. Are the Los Alamos and White Rock families willing to bear this burden? Are families who are not employed with LANL going to have childcare in the future? The LANL facility will provide care for the ~35% of respondents that live off the Hill and potentially displace openings for the residents of Los Alamos.
Is Livermore a fair comparison point for the Los Alamos model of childcare? A group from LANL made a recent fact-finding trip to the Livermore Laboratory Employee Services Association (LLESA) Children’s Center in Livermore, Calif., which is located off LLNL property and run as an independent 501(c)4 nonprofit. This center was established in 1986 and serves approximately 125 children. One of the major themes raised in the open responses from respondents included that care was too expensive. Are LANL families going to be willing to pay the fees that Livermore families pay for care? Currently, a full-time infant/toddler cost $2,111 per month, 2 year old is $1,682, preschool is $1,404, and Pre-K is $1,207.
Justifying the LANL childcare based on the LLNL extra space model is not a fair comparison. Livermore is a population dense area of approximately ~361,000 people in the East Bay, Tri-Valley area. There are several major employers in the region. On the other hand, Los Alamos and White Rock have a combined population of ~19,400 with 8,000 commuters. The Livermore childcare does not have a significant effect on the childcare business community because there are many employers to provide enrollment for the surrounding childcare businesses. It was built initially because Livermore was a childcare desert at the time. Over time the community has expanded around it. Los Alamos is a much smaller community. Growth is limited and Los Alamos is basically a company town. Most people work at LANL or for a company that supports LANL. If LANL fills 100 spots there are limited opportunities to generate new business and fill openings.
It’s hard to compete with free. Triad has proposed an annual contribution to cover costs of the lease and potential other expenses. Local providers will not be able to compete with a free mortgage, possible additional subsidy and the Lab’s extensive resources. This subsidy might be deemed an unscrupulous approach that will result in an unfair advantage for LANL’s provider. This could result in significant harm to existing providers whose businesses are predominantly woman owned, small businesses. This certainly is not in the spirit of being a “good community partner”. Also, will this contribution/subsidy be considered a non-cash benefit and taxable for employees? It certainly does not meet the criteria outlined in the Request to provide services at “market-competitive rates”.
How will the LANL child care affect local businesses and financial Institutions? Local child care providers believe that it is essential to gather the input of local businesses that will be affected by the LANL childcare facility. What repercussions will this have for your business if LANL provides subsidized childcare for their employees and you cannot afford to do so? What if the LANL facility causes closures in town? This will certainly affect care for your employees in an already strained workforce.
Local financial institutions have invested in the inception and long-term success of local child care businesses. Some of these institutions hold mortgages and loans with local providers. Are they concerned that LANL may put one or more of these providers out of business?
How will the LANL facility be staffed? It is reasonable to surmise that when LANL opens its facility, other childcare providers will face attrition due to shifting staff to the new LANL provider who will likely be able to offer higher salaries, compensation (e.g.,401k) and other benefits because they are going to be subsidized. This shift will cause a destabilization in some local child care businesses who are already facing a limited and depleted workforce.
Why is there only a window of 8 days for local providers to submit a statement of interest/qualifications to LANL and will a Request for Proposals (RFP) be issued? This timeline is suspect and unreasonable. Does LANL have a preselected candidate to provide care at their facility. Also, in the original Approval to use the CCOP Funds it was stated that LANL was exploring an employee-led nonprofit model similar to the LLESA Children’s Center in Livermore. When did the scope of the model change and why did it change? Are out-of-town providers going to be allowed to submit letters of interest?
Possible solutions to fill the need for additional childcare –
Support rather than supplant the existing local providers that have served the community for decades and be a good community partner. Support the LANL workforce by authentically working to strengthen existing child care businesses. LANL has stated that childcare is an urgent and predominant issue for recruitment and retention of their workforce. However, LANL has not provided support to local childcare businesses through collaboration, community partnering, or sharing their financial resources. The rush to provide a LANL-sponsored facility feels like a checked box rather than a thoughtful, well-planned, sustainable solution.
Before proceeding with the LANL facility, a thorough and detailed survey needs to be administered by an independent, non-biased firm. Do this to fully evaluate the childcare need for all Los Alamos and White Rock residents, not just LANL employees. Detailed information is needed to fully assess the “real” childcare need. For example, saying that 100 spots are needed is useless information. This needs to be further analyzed to extrapolate the real data. Of the 100 spots deemed necessary, is the need full-time, part-time, afterschool, what are age breakdowns. For example, in enrollment terms, two part-time spots (2-3 days per week request) can be combined to equal 1 enrollment spot, or a daily spot (7:30-3:30) can be combined with an afterschool spot (3:30-5:30) to equal 1 enrollment spot. This level of detail is important to understand if the problem is going to be solved.
Collaborate with local businesses and institutions like the Los Alamos Public Schools, banks, hospitals, to determine what their childcare needs are for their employees and tap their resources and expertise for viable alternative solutions, training for staff, business advice for the childcare providers, and parenting resources.
Partner and support regional institutions to build a new Workforce and Economic Development initiative to meet LANL’s growing need for childcare. This includes partnering with institutions like UNM-LA, Northern New Mexico Community College, and Santa Fe Community College to develop and implement an Early Childhood Internship program, similar to the LANL machinists’ competency-based apprenticeship program, where students can work in local child care facilities, gain on-the-job experience, and develop a career path.
Consider making childcare an employee benefit so parents can stay employed. Statistically, women have borne the brunt of the child care shortage. Establish a Caregiving Benefit in the form of flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for your employees. Providing childcare (or care for a parent, spouse, etc.) as a benefit may not provide the same tax incentives as providing health care (yet), but when weighed against the costs of finding and hiring new employees, the investment in keeping parents employed by offering childcare proves its value. This level of commitment will benefit all LANL employees, give employees the power to place their children in a facility of their choosing, and not limit the subsidized benefit to a potential 100 employees per year. It is a wise, free market plan that would generate new growth, fair competition and stabilization in local child care and your workforce.
If the LANL facility becomes a reality, work with local providers to structure the LANL offerings to compliment the local providers and provide the care for LANL employees that local providers cannot afford to provide without raising rates for families, to include: shift-work, drop-in, snow days, and emergency care.
Be realistic and understand that LANL will not be able to meet all of the requests by employees due to regulatory requirements, practical application, or reasonable limitations.
We appreciate your consideration regarding this complex issue and look forward to forming a Child Care Task Force with all interested stakeholders to solve the child care issue for the community as a whole. We urgently request that the November 18th deadline for the Request for Expression of Interest be tabled until the Child Care Task Force can meet in person with LANL within a reasonable timeframe to gather all parties and allow enough time to compile accurate data and prepare appropriately. Realistically, after the holidays would be the most judicious.
It is our hope that LANL puts on the brakes, meets with stakeholders and works to solve the childcare issue in a sincere, ethical manner, taking into consideration the implications of their actions on the entire community, acting first and foremost in the best interest of children. LANL needs to bring transparency to their whole daycare plan and say what it is and what it is not.