On weekday mornings, Nancy Liang leaves her home in Coquitlam and drives her two-year-old son to his daycare, which is in a grey industrial-business zone in Richmond. The building that contains his child-care centre looks dismal. A furniture store takes up the whole first floor. It borders a gravel parking lot and is across the street from a cement factory. Truck traffic on Sea Island Way trundles by.
But on the second floor of the two-storey building sit the spacious offices of Syscon Justice Systems, a software company that designs computer programs for jails and prisons. This is where Liang works as an application developer and where little Bernard Liu attends daycare with seven other kids aged one to five.
Workplace childcare is relatively new to Canada, but it's poised to revolutionize how the service is delivered. This year, both the B.C. and federal governments changed laws to make workplace daycares more attractive to businesses. The City of Vancouver will consider a report in the spring of 2008 that could facilitate on-site daycare in office buildings. However, some child-care lobbyists–who have been fighting for a taxpayer-funded system for three decades–hate the idea.
Meanwhile, Syscon's facility is in full swing. Midmorning on November 30, Liu was bedecked in a grass skirt and wiggled his hips to "The Merry Hula" along with the centre's coordinator, Margaret McColm. The daycare's main room features a carpet-covered climbing-and-slide apparatus, a water-play area, and a well-stocked library. The facility also has a nap room, a kids' computer space, and a washroom decorated with hanging planets and aliens the children painted. The one thing the centre doesn't have is access to an outdoor green space and playground. On its child-care licence, the City of Richmond granted an exemption to Syscon for an outdoor space.
For the past 28 years, early childhood educator McColm has worked in every child-care setting imaginable– privately run centres, nonprofits, government-run family places–and she's even nannied for families. This, she said, is the best model she's seen: employer-sponsored on-site daycare.
"It's not that I think this is the solution to the whole child-care problem across the province," McColm, whose voice lilts with the remnants of an Irish brogue, told the Georgia Straight at the centre on November 30. "But out of everything I've done out of my whole working life, this is the most positive."
Syscon CEO Floyd Sully said he doesn't understand why workplace childcare can't exist alongside a public system–if a national child-care program ever materializes.
"Childcare is not a women's issue, it's a business issue," Sully told the Straight during an interview in his office. Sully's round face turns red when he speaks about workplace childcare; it's his passion. "It's a parental issue.”¦The fact that women have to go out and work puts it into stark relief. They have no choice. And at that point, it becomes everyone's issue."
Sully hopes the model will catch on. In a document he engineered, Creating a Child Care Centre at Your Workplace, he noted: "I believe it will improve the bottom line of our company" through a reduction of employee stress and clients' impression that the business is "caring and progressive".
The origin of Syscon's Valentine Anderson Child Care Centre was personal. Sully conceived it in 2006 when one of his employees couldn't find appropriate care for her infant. The CEO was shocked by the lack of care available, and the cost.
On average, a family ordinarily pays $11,460 per year per toddler for a licensed daycare, staffed by early childhood educators, according to a 2007 fee survey conducted by the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre. (That's equivalent to two-and-a-half years' tuition in an undergraduate program at UBC.) At Syscon, it's $250 a month–a quarter of what other centres charge. Sully subsidizes it by about $550 per child per month. For parents, other advantages include no commuting and no wait lists. The centre's two employees earn about double what other centres pay. For Sully, it's a human-resources boon. Happy employees mean low turnover and the ability to attract talent internationally.
So far, workplace childcare is pretty limited locally. Although some public institutions, such as Langara College and UBC, offer facilities on-site, Syscon is still the only private employer in the Lower Mainland to fund it. That's partly because in Vancouver, city bylaws state that child-care centres must provide outdoor play areas immediately adjacent to the indoor space–impossible in most office buildings and malls.
That may be changing. In the spring, Vancouver's city council will receive a report from the planning department on the necessity of "contiguous" outdoor green space. Effectively, the report may lead to a motion that the bylaws change to accommodate high-rise–based child-care centres. If a centre's green space can be a stairway or an elevator ride away, daycares can exist anywhere.
The report was precipitated by a fall 2006 request by private child-care operator Natasha Beim, who wanted to open a centre in Yaletown. At the direction of council, the planning department hired child-care policy consultant Jane Beach and UBC associate professor of landscape architecture Susan Herrington to write the report. The department, according to city social planner Coralys Cuthbert, is preparing staff recommendations to council.
Outdoor play, Beach and Herrington found in Research, Practices and Trends in Child Care Centre Design for Outdoor Play, is essential for physical fitness, mental development, stress reduction, social intelligence, and sensory-motor development. They noted that Canada currently recommends about a parking-space-sized outdoor space per child in a child-care setting.
"Outdoor play spaces that are located several floors away or down the block hinder the functional management of the centre," the report reads, "and may also deter use of outdoor play space."
Beach and Herrington recommended to the planning department that outdoor-space guidelines remain the same. However, they also allowed for a committee to "consider requests for exemptions to the guidelines on a case by case basis".
Fewer than one in five B.C. children aged 12 and under have access to a spot in a licensed child-care centre, the researchers found.
For 30 years in Canada, advocates like Crystal Janes have lobbied for a federal child-care system funded by taxpayers to address the drought of quality spaces. The lobby hasn't been successful. In 2005, the Liberals announced the beginnings of what looked like one, only to have it cancelled by the Conservatives. To Janes, who is the information director of the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre and a spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C., it seems government support for modern Canadian childcare is at a new low.
"There's zilch, zero chance that [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper will make this happen," she told the Straight in a December 3 phone interview.
Janes is concerned that the province is abdicating what she sees as its responsibility to provide childcare by allowing the less vigilant hands of business to provide the service. As well, she argued, workplace childcare won't help women who work for businesses that won't provide it, which will be the majority. She also worries that businesses will lobby the government to cut child-care standards, making on-site care more affordable for business. The new provincial multi-age category that allows a single worker to care for up to eight children, she said, is just the beginning. The potential for erasing outdoor-space requirements gives her chills.
Federally, Syscon's Sully sat on Human Resources and Social Development Canada's ministerial advisory committee on the government's child-care spaces initiative (which resulted in a $10,000-per-space tax credit for businesses announced in the 2007 budget). Provincially, he cochairs WorkLife BC, a project of the B.C. Ministry of Children and Families that encourages business and individuals to pursue workplace flexibility. Minister of State for Childcare Linda Reid is also a cochair.
Janes said she wishes governments would listen to those who have years of real, hands-on experience providing childcare in a range of settings and to a range of families, instead of just the business lobby. "It's government's responsibility to provide childcare," she repeated. Instead of Harper's recent goods-and-services-tax cut, she said, he could have invested in a pan-Canadian child-care system. Both moves cost $5 billion, she said.
So why hasn't the federal government created a subsidized system such as those in Scandinavia and Quebec?
On Commercial Drive on Mother's Day 2007, a group of about 80 folks rallied for a federal system of high-quality, affordable, accessible, publicly funded, and accountable childcare. Carrying signs and chanting slogans, they marched from 7th Avenue and Victoria Drive to Grandview Park.
"The reality of working-class women's lives makes it very hard to become politically active," said Merryn Edwards, the organizer of the march, in explaining the limited turnout to the Straight during a recent phone interview.
Professional women, Edwards argued–those who have the greatest access to political power–have been bought off by the federal live-in–caregiver program, which allows them to import nannies from abroad. Plus, she said, professional women can afford the $955 a month the average child-care space costs.
Workplace daycare won't solve working-class women's problems, she said. Edwards, a coordinator of Vancouver's Grassroots Women, works closely with cleaners, whose employers are reluctant to pay even minimum wage, she noted. "It benefits employers when [working-class] women are struggling," she said. "When people are afraid of losing what jobs they have”¦they're forced to accept lower wages and worse working conditions."
But Sue Colley, who is on the steering committee of Code Blue for Child Care, the latest national campaign lobbying for a pan-Canadian public system, isn't against the idea–as a stopgap measure. Code Blue represents 88 unions, child-care advocacy groups, and other social organizations.
"It's [workplace childcare] not ideal, but it's not like it's a terrible thing," she told the Straight on the phone from Toronto. "It's not a strategy that will fix daycare. It works in large, stable workplaces, but certainly not at the corner store."
It's not just that working-class women don't have time to lobby, she said; the child-care issue affects virtually all families for four or five years, and then it's over for them. That makes for a limited pool of affected parents at any one time.
The only way to get a national, taxpayer-funded child-care system in Canada that will minister to the needs of all economic groups, Colley said, is to elect a party that believes in it. And that's not the Conservatives.
Fantasize for a moment about the ultimate child-care facility. It's free. It can accommodate your kids from four months old to eight years old. The food is all organic. There's always space for more kids.
This little piece of Scandinavian-type socialism exists, and it's funded entirely by the capitalists at Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing manufacturer. The head office in Ventura, California, houses 375 staff, and the child-care facility accommodates 78 of their children and has existed since 1986. It was one of the first workplace child-care centres in North America.
"Think about that amazing sense of loyalty that parent has," Shannon Ellis, Patagonia's director of human resources, told the Straight in a phone interview from Ventura. Patagonia's founders had trouble finding childcare for their own children 21 years ago, she said, so they started their own at work. Not only did it fix their child-care problem, it ended their human-resources problems. Now the company's head office receives more than 10,000 résumés per year, and employee turnover is next to zero. Ellis has never heard of a mom not returning to work after maternity leave.
Patagonia was a leader in this, but it has become business as usual in the United States. A company called Bright Horizons runs more than 600 workplace daycares in the U.S. and the U.K., and now one in Canada, at the IBM office in Markham, Ontario. Of the companies listed in the Fortune 500, 90 have daycare centres run by Bright Horizons, according to the company's Web site.
Although Bright Horizons hasn't made inroads in B.C., the daycare at the soon-to-be-opened 1 Kingsway community centre will be operated on contract by the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre. The Developmental Disabilities Association runs the child-care centres at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre and Vancouver General Hospital. In other words, the foundation has been laid for local businesses to contract out the running of their on-site centres to nonprofit organizations.
It's important to note that Patagonia's fantasy-style care ends at the head office. Ellis said that at the distribution centre, staff receive vouchers for subsidized care. Those who make Patagonia's clothes, and those who sell them at retail outlets–the company's working-class employees–do not receive any child-care benefits.
Even for professional women such as Amrit Aitken, a St. Paul's Hospital research-lab manager, Vancouver's child-care situation is frustrating. Each morning in Burnaby, she packs one-year-old Jarrod off with his dad, who works at Syscon. In the afternoons, she picks Jarrod up in Richmond, because dad Jeffery Aitken usually works past when the Valentine Anderson centre closes, at 5 p.m.
"I'd like to have my son here with me [at St. Paul's], but there's nothing set up," she told the Straight in a phone interview. St. Paul's, unlike VGH and G.F. Strong, has no green space and thus no daycare. "Leaving my son with strangers when he's just a baby is not what I wanted to do. So even though there's still a lot of driving, it's a big stress relief that Dad's right down the hall. If Syscon hadn't offered daycare, I don't know what we would have done."
Both Sully and Ellis argue that rather than erode child-care standards, on-site centres must provide an even better environment. "If we screw up," said Sully, "I don't just lose a customer–I lose an employee."
If governments succeed in sloughing a significant amount of child-care responsibility onto Canadian businesses, that statement will be tested.