Child Care Benefits at Work: This App Helps Your Employer Pay Family and Friends for Babysitting

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The undervaluation of care work is reflected in how it’s paid — and how it’s not.

The median hourly pay for a child care worker in the United States was $12.24 in May 2020, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it one of the lowest-paid occupations in the country. Child care workers earn less, on average, than retail sales workers, who earn a median wage of $13.02; housekeepers, who earn $12.61; parking attendants, who earn $13.02; and telemarketers, who earn $13.42.

Low pay and few benefits also contribute to high turnover and low retention rates in the child care industry— as high as 40 percent in some states. This makes it hard to find quality care for families that are already paying exorbitant rates to access it, annually costing parents more than in-state tuition at a four-year college in some states.

The care work that isn’t paid — the work often performed in homes by women — is estimated to be worth trillions of dollars a year. One estimate found that the unpaid work women do is worth at least $1.5 trillion a year in the United States if those women were paid minimum wage. On a global scale, that’s $10.9 trillion.

To help address that, Helpr ensures professional sitters are paid about $25 an hour on average, but must have at least two years of child care experience. The app is in most major cities, about 20 in the United States, plus internationally in Mexico, Canada, China, Argentina, Australia and others. Wages are adjusted based on the living wage in each location.

Helpr is also hoping to change another practice: expecting family and friends who typically do care as a favor for parents to not get paid at all. The service launched a new feature for onboarding family and friends in 2019, and it has since become fully integrated into the Helpr app. It’s the most popular option for families, Edwards said. About 700 family and friend sitters have been uploaded so far. The app also offers about 1,000 of its own professional sitters.

“Everybody has some sort of village that they lean into, and we try to help those folks see that you can stop asking your sister-in-law for favors and you can put some money behind the transaction and formalize that relationship around that caregiving need,” Edwards said. “That way it’s more reliable, it’s more punctuated and it’s more helpful to both parties in the transaction.”

Grace Johnston, a tech worker in California, has onboarded her sister and sister-in-law into the Helpr app to help with care for her daughter, who was born in May 2020, when Johnston and her husband transitioned to working from home.

“I realized within a few days that it was unrealistic for us to both work full time and watch our baby. That is when we started relying on Helpr,” Johnston said. “Having someone for just a few hours a day has made a massive difference and has made it feel totally sustainable to both keep working from home with the baby.”

For family and friend sitters, parents provide a name and email, and Helpr handles the onboarding process. Johnston uses the app several times a week and pays $6 an hour. Her employer, a tech company in Silicon Valley, pays the rest. Because she can rely on sitters she already trusts, Johnston said she feels more comfortable using care services more frequently, calling it the single thing that has had the “biggest impact on my journey to become a working mom.”

But there are still barriers to adoption, both for parents and companies, Edwards said. About 42 percent of parents are afraid using the child care benefits provided through their employer could put their job at risk, according to a survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit that does research on working women.

“We’re going to continue to face challenges on user adoption,” Edwards said. “There’s still a lot of guilt for a lot of moms and parents who don’t want to feel like they’re over overstepping or leaving their kids alone.”

What’s encouraging, in the face of the pandemic, is that more companies are looking to normalize access to child care benefits as an economic imperative that improves retention. The recession has also created the space to even have the conversation about solutions.

“We’re really excited about this being a new language to say, ‘The bottom line of any company is highly supported by this network of people who are taking care of everyone’s kids,’” Edwards said.

Normalizing access to backup care is something Helpr believes can also be legislated. This year, it worked to draft a bill that would mandate that companies with more than 1,000 employees offer backup child care as a benefit.

In California, state Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo took up the cause, introducing the legislation in February — the first time a bill of its kind has been proposed. Employers would be required to subsidize 60 hours at an estimated cost of as little as $50 per employee, per year.

That number changes depending on how much employees tap into the benefit — many employees don’t use ancillary benefits at all even if they’re available. Adopting something like Helpr would be particularly costly for smaller businesses, which is part of the reason Carrillo left them out of the legislation.

In the tech world, backup care isn’t a new idea. Some of the country’s largest employers have offered the benefit for years, including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google. In 2019, a group of about 1,800 moms at Amazon, who called themselves the Momazonians, campaigned for the benefit before the company agreed to offer it temporarily last year. It expired in October.

In the past several years, workers have been more vocal about requesting the benefit, prompting other companies, including Starbucks and Best Buy, to start offering backup care, too. That’s expected to grow in the wake of the pandemic, when companies are implementing more flexible benefits, particularly for working parents. and Bright Horizons, the leaders in the backup care space, have also pointed to increases in the use of their platforms, including the backup child care option, since the start of the pandemic.

A change in legislation makes a pretty clear business case for Helpr, which stands to benefit from mandated backup child care, particularly in California. But it would also open up the market, drawing new companies and possibly sparking similar legislation in other states.

“This could advance, not just the actual benefit availability for families, but really step forward that culture,” Edwards said.

It does present a barrier for companies, which would be required to incur the additional cost if the legislation passes at a time when many businesses are trying to return to normal operations following the worst of the economic fallout of the pandemic.

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