Business

2 SLO County companies ease day care crunch with on-site centers

Take Your Child to Work Day is everyday for some at Trust Automation

Finding quality, affordable child care, especially for infants, can be a daunting task for many working parents in San Luis Obispo County, a challenge that two local companies are trying to mitigate by offering on-site facilities for their employe
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Finding quality, affordable child care, especially for infants, can be a daunting task for many working parents in San Luis Obispo County, a challenge that two local companies are trying to mitigate by offering on-site facilities for their employe

When Ciera Maul knew she was going to have a child, she didn’t think twice about whether to return to work after her baby was born.

Maul already knew where Sawyer, now 11 months, would be while she worked: Trust Children’s Center at Trust Automation in San Luis Obispo.

“I probably wouldn’t have come back to work,” said Maul, who’s worked since 2009 for the company, which provides motion and motor control system and manufacturing solutions. “For so many moms, you feel like you’re choosing between work and being a good mom. But this means you don’t have to make that tough choice, and it alleviates some of that mom guilt.”

At MindBody in San Luis Obispo, Noelle Feist finds similar comfort from her company’s on-site child care center, where 1-year-old Oden spends the day while his mother works.

It’s about “knowing he’s OK,” the director of MindBody’s experiential and event marketing said.

“Just knowing I could come get him, you can concentrate on your work,” Feist said. “The teachers are great and so accommodating. I have to travel a lot for events, and they go above and beyond, sending photos while I’m gone.”

Finding quality, affordable child care — especially for infants — can be a daunting task for many working parents in San Luis Obispo County.

Faced with few options, moms and dads must often hire caregivers to come into their home, lean on relatives for help — if they live close by — or drive across town to an in-home day care or day care center, many of which have waiting lists. For some parents, the scarcity of child care means dropping out of the workforce altogether.

It was this desire to retain employees with young children that motivated Ty and Trudie Safreno, owners of Trust Automation, to successfully build and open an on-site child care center last year, four years after starting the process.

The company’s child care program, which is open to the community, is believed to be one of the few day care centers located on-site at a company in San Luis Obispo County, said Ty Safreno, CEO and chief technology officer. Moreover, it is one of the only child care centers in the state that doesn’t contract with a corporate child care company to provide the service.

In 2015, MindBody, a company which makes online management software that helps owners of beauty, health and wellness businesses, opened Little Ensos. The center provides on-site day care for employees’ children — as long as they’re infant-through-preschool age. MindBody partners with Children’s Creative Learning Center, a nationwide provider of employer-sponsored early education programs. The centers work in conjunction with companies, organizations and government agencies to customize child care programs for businesses.

MindBody decided to offer child care after recognizing that it ranked high on employees’ lists of needs, said Jeff Harper, MindBody’s senior vice president of people and culture.

In recent years, the company, with 986 employees in the tricounty area, has experienced significant growth and expansion, and it saw supporting employees with children as an essential part of MindBody’s overall mission and philosophy, Harper said. Part of the center’s name is derived from the company logo — the Enso — a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism that represents enlightenment and connectedness.

Little Ensos is open only to employees and currently serves 36 families and 45 children from 6 weeks old to 6 years old. Nine families are pending enrollment because the mothers are pregnant.

Qualifying families can take advantage of subsidies to help with the cost of tuition. The company declined to disclose information about tuition or other costs associated with the center, saying only that tuition is competitive relative to the costs of other day care providers in the area.

The value of the child care center to its employees far outweighs any monetary element, Harper noted. It’s about retaining talent and ensuring employees have the support to reach their potential, he said.

“The peace of mind is incredible,” said Harper, who recently became a new father. “It makes for people who are happier and engaged.”

Mike Manchak, president and CEO of the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County, which has helped several day care businesses start and expand over the years, called the opening of Trust Children’s Center and Little Ensos a promising development in the local business community.

It’s his hope that other local companies will follow suit.

Day care challenge

But providing this benefit can be easier said than done.

A recent NPR article on the topic of day care in the United States noted that “child care, particularly infant care, is an extremely low-profit field.”

High costs, including those for labor, supplies and insurance, make it a difficult business proposition. And day care centers aren’t eager to raise prices because tuition is already so expensive, with parents in the United States paying an average of $9,589 a year for full-time care from birth to the age of 4, according to the article, which referenced a recent report from nonpartisan think tank New America.

A 2016 employee benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that only 2 percent of U.S. employers have subsidized child care centers, a decrease from 4 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 1996. Only 3 percent have a nonsubsidized child care center. These are company-affiliated on-site or near-site centers.

The peace of mind is incredible. It makes for people who are happier and engaged.

Jeff Harper, MindBody’s senior vice president of people and culture

“Because child care benefits are an important recruitment and retention driver for working parents, employers also offer other child care related benefits,” said Kate Kennedy, media and public affairs manager for the organization. “These other benefits (allowing workers to bring their children to work in a child care emergency — 26 percent — and child care referral services — 16 percent — for example) are more commonly offered because they help the employee at a minimal cost to the organization. Costlier benefits, such as the subsidized child care center, are less commonly offered.”

An on-site day care and after-school program at Patagonia, a Ventura-based outdoor retailer, is estimated to cost about $1 million a year. That’s after collecting dues from parents and a $150,000 tax deduction, according to a September 2016 online article in Bloomberg News.

However, the company believes so strongly in the benefit of providing a day care that it has published a book, “Family Business: Innovative On-Site Child Care Since 1983.”

Other California companies, including Google and Cisco in Silicon Valley, also offer on-site child care to employees. And though it’s not a company, the Orfalea Family and ASI Children’s Center at Cal Poly has long been known for providing quality care for children of university faculty, staff and students.

Despite the challenges it may present for businesses, Manchak of Economic Vitality Corp. remains convinced that offering day care for employees is the right thing to do for San Luis Obispo County companies.

“It is, in some cases, the most important benefit to employees for their peace of mind and the well-being of their children,” he said. “On-site day care is certainly not easy or simple to provide, but creates a multitude of benefits to children, their parents and the employers — and to society overall.”

Setting up a program

Trudie Safreno, president and chief financial officer of Trust Automation, which employs 60 people, recalls how she had to navigate child care. With a growing business to operate, she and her husband often relied on local college students to care for their two children.

“I knew that I had an opportunity that others didn’t have,” she said. “We realized that there was this need as more of our young people were starting their families. We wanted them to be able to do what what we did.”

“It’s important for everyone who has a part in this company,” said Ty Safreno, adding that children infuse a certain level of excitement and energy to the work environment. “The best part of our day here is seeing the cute little munchkins trucking down the hall. The whole company gets to be a part of their little accomplishments.”

Starting the day care facility, however, proved challenging for the Safrenos, who decided to personally fund and operate the 1,900-square-foot center for children 6 weeks to 5 years.

The couple declined to disclose financial information about the center, saying only that it is expensive to operate and that they “put a lot into it.”

“We had to do it all on our own,” said Trudie Safreno, noting that they did not set it up to be a profitable enterprise. “All we are here to do is take care of children.”

Because of the nature of operating a child care center, their business has higher insurance and workers’ compensation costs. In addition, the Safrenos said they had to navigate a web of complex state regulations, as well as a multitude of health, safety and licensing requirements.

“In California, there are barriers to child care as a whole,” Trudie Safreno said. “You really have to be a perfect scenario, just to have child care in the building.”

The upside, though, of doing it all themselves is that they have more control over long-term decisions, Ty Safreno said.

“If you want to do it right, you’re going to spend more,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, you have to believe it’s the right thing to do, and you have to be motivated to do it.”

A look inside

The center, certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, mere steps from the main headquarters, is a colorful, modular and energy-efficient structure with plenty of windows, allowing streams of light to filter into the playrooms.

Inside, the intimate environment features a full kitchen to prepare snacks and supervise cooking activities.

Sarah Davis, child care director, said the center has a play-based approach to learning, and it shows in the enthusiasm of the children who were busy one sunny, winter afternoon making bridges and ramps with one of the wooden building toys, riding tricycles and simply enjoying nature on the playground.

The center, with 35 students and six teachers, encourages family involvement and interaction, and parents will often stop by to spend time with their children or go on field trips when they can, Davis said.

“About 85 percent of our families are first-time parents,” she said. “We try to help guide them and mentor them, as well as provide services to their children.”

Eleven families use the center, with about half Trust employees and the other half being employees from nearby businesses. Full-time care for an infant is $1,250 a month; preschool is $1,050 a month for full-time care.

Right now, there’s no tuition subsidy for employees, said Trudie Safreno, noting that as a homegrown company it is already subsidizing it.

2 percentShare of U.S. employers that offer subsidized child care, down from 9 percent in 1996

45Number of kids at MindBody’s Little Ensos day care; the company has 986 employees

$1,050Monthly cost for preschool care at Trust Automation’s child care center; infant care is $1,250 a month

Despite the lack of a tuition break, there’s high demand for the center, especially infant care.

“I really feel comfortable when Sawyer is with them,” Ciera Maul said. “The director and teachers are incredible. For us, the quality of child care we’re getting makes it worth it.”

Melanie Marshall, Trust Automation’s controller and the parent of 6-month-old Jake, who attends the center, witnessed firsthand what the Safrenos experienced to pull it off.

“They had been through it, and so they understood the struggle,” she said. “I’m not sure if I were in their shoes, I would have been able to make it happen.”

MindBody’s approach

Rather than go it alone, MindBody chose CCLC, because it already had the resources to set up a successful child care center, Harper said.

MindBody owns the equipment, but the center is managed by CCLC, which assisted the company with licensing requirements, building the child care program and designing the LEED-certified facility.

In one toddler room, the children were busy playing with dolls, toy trucks and instruments right next to a floor-to-ceiling, one-way glass wall that allows parents to take a quick peek at the day’s activities. In another room, some of the 3- to 5-year-old children sat in a circle to participate in sharing time. The preschool component opened in August.

Rachel McClure, MindBody’s people and culture program manager, said parents are invited to be involved and encouraged to pop in anytime to interact with their children or just to have a short, reassuring visit.

“One of the huge benefits of having it here is the open-door policy,” she said. “You can nurse your child if you need to. We want to help people with work-life integration. We don’t want to pretend that we don’t have families. It’s such a huge part of who people are.”

Jennifer Rey, who works in human resources and as a recruiter for the company, has two in the center: Xavier, 2, and Ophelia, 5 months.

“Knowing the day care center was here made me more comfortable having a family,” she said. “I had my son around the time the day care center was starting to open. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Child care information

For more information, contact the California Department of Social Services at ccld.ca.gov for licensing requirements, fees, child care tools and resources.

Find out more

For more information about Trust Automation’s child care center, which is open to the public, visit www.trustchildrenscenter.com.

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