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New child care program at Evangelical offers working parents a 'patch'

Daily Item - 11/28/2023

Nov. 25—LEWISBURG — Faced with a sudden lack of child care on any given day, Sabrina Gratti said she would normally have to scramble to find someone to watch her 3-year-old son or call off work at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg.

Since September, hospital employees like Gratti who have children have the option of a backup child care program called PATCH. The new program — a drop-in child care and after-school program that gives normal caregivers breaks and allows working parents to keep working — is the first of its kind in the Greater Susquehanna Valley.

"I think it's really good," said Gratti, a phlebotomist in the laboratory services department. "I've said for a while they should look into day care at work. A lot of people need that backup. A lot of people don't have the time to take off when that need presents itself. It's definitely a good backup."

In May, Evangelical Community Hospital President and CEO Kendra Aucker announced that the hospital, Geisinger and the Greater Susquehanna Valley YMCA are working together to construct a new child care center at the Miller Center in Lewisburg. Aucker stressed that accessing affordable, quality child care is a top priority for employees.

ReadyNation, which is part of Council for a Strong America, a national, bipartisan nonprofit that unites membership organizations, and the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission reported a new study examining the economic impacts of problems in Pennsylvania's child care system on working parents, employers, and taxpayers. They reported an annual economic cost of $6.65 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue due to the issue.

Productivity challenges affect both employers and employees: 56 percent of Pennsylvania parents surveyed report being late for work due to child care struggles; half or more report missing full days of work, leaving work early, or being distracted at work; and more than half of parents said problems with child care hurt their efforts at work, according to the study.

In using PATCH, parents can simply enroll in the program, book a spot and bring their child into the care space at the hospital. The team of caregivers engages the children in a day full of enriching, play-based activities. All employees of Evangelical Community Hospital and some non-employees are eligible to enroll in the program to receive care for any children or grandchildren that they care for.

Sixty-eight parents have registered 91 children for PATCH. As of last week, 17 unique parents have used the service with 42 bookings to date.

Gratti, who works three 12-hour days a week, and her working husband usually rely on Sabrina's mother and grandmother three times a week to watch 3-year-old Alexander. They have used PATCH five times since September.

"My babysitters were on vacation," said Gratti. "It's very useful so I don't have to take time off work. Sometimes my babysitters have appointments or I want to pick up the extra time."

Gratti said they looked into part-time day care, but it's "quite expensive."

Using PATCH

Rachel Smith, vice president of people and culture at Evangelical Community Hospital, said there could be lots of different reasons why employees use PATCH.

"It could be emergency situations where their regular child care falls through last minute," said Smith. "We're also seeing employees use this to plan ahead when schools may be closed, or regular child care centers will be closed. Maybe they use a babysitter, family member or friend, and that individual is scheduled to go on vacation or is sick. Anything that is a disruptor."

It can also be used for parents on waiting lists for child care facilities, said Smith.

"We were starting to hear more and more about challenges in child care," said Smith. "Some employees are on long waiting lists and trying to figure out what options they have. We decided we needed to be part of the solution."

Evangelical sought out a consultant through the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission and got connected with PATCH. It sounded like it would be a great fit at the hospital, said Smith.

"It's not meant to be the one and only solution," said Smith. "It certainly doesn't address everyone's child care needs. It's our attempt to say 'We hear you.' We're trying to do something to make child care more accessible, especially for individuals who are day by day sometimes trying to figure out what their child care is going to look like."

The PATCH program center is located at Evangelical's Professional Building. It was a space used previously by Community Health and Wellness as well as a COVID infusion center, said Smith.

"It's a perfect space; it's easily accessible," said Smith. "It's a nice space. It has restroom facilities. It's perfectly designed."

Evangelical renovated and painted the space. PATCH converted it into the child care space it is now, said Smith.

Options for employees

PATCH gives employees options, Smith said.

"It allows employees to have another option," she said. "If an employee is in a place where they have to choose between coming to work or taking care of their children, they have the option to bring their children here. It's a win-win situation. They get to work, they don't have to use their paid time off or potentially time without pay, and we get the benefit of them working the shift they were scheduled to work."

It also allows employees to pick up extra shifts, she said.

"They can call in the day of, they can book it up to a month in advance if they have scheduled needs," said Smith. "It's a space where their child is safe, they will be engaged in play and arts and crafts. They don't have to worry about what's going on with their children during the day."

The program can take up to five children at a time between the ages of 2 and 12. Evangelical subsidizes the program. There is a parent copayment, determined by an employee's pay level. Copayment ranges from $4 to $10 per hour and is deducted directly from the paycheck, said Smith.

"We want this to be an option that is accessible to people," said Smith. "We were cognizant that if we had something too expensive, employees wouldn't be able to use it. Having a copay has that shared responsibility that ensures individuals recognize that it's not meant to be a permanent child care solution."

First of its kind

Sarah Alexander, the founder/CEO of PATCH, and Willem Sandberg, the operations director of PATCH at Evangelical, said there are sites in California, Ohio, and the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas. There are no other PATCH sites in Snyder, Union, Montour and Northumberland counties.

PATCH is located in hospital systems, factories, fulfillment centers, and distribution centers. It's any business with a "big in-person, shift-based, desk-less workforce," said Sandberg.

"While we have a lot of elements of the program consistent across the sites, we work closely with the employer and the parent population to fine-tune a lot of these details," said Sandberg. "We can get these sites up pretty quickly, which is unique about PATCH. We're using existing space at the employer site."

Alexander said they comply with all local, state and federal licensing. It also highly depends on the size and scope of the program, she said.

"Every site looks a little different," she said. "It's our goal to make it low effort for the employers. We know most of the businesses we work with are not in the business of child care. We handle everything end to end. That means everything from getting the space set up, all the way to enrolling parents, advertising the program, staffing, operating the room, everything that goes along with the actual experience."

'Perfect solution'

This model that PATCH offers is the "perfect solution" for parents, said Sandberg.

"We've seen a lot of parents really deeply struggle with the tradeoff between their career and their family," said Sandberg. "A solution that enables parents to have that care near work and be convenient is a total game changer. It enables parents to not make that tough choice and pick both in a way."

Alexander said child care has not caught up to the modern workforce, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The caregiving struggle of many employees has become more apparent to employers," said Alexander. "There's a renewed willingness on employers' part to see the connection between productivity and the presence of their workers and the child care responsibilities they have. There's been an exciting movement to get more employers involved in the care conversation."

The name "PATCH" reflects the philosophy of the company, said Alexander.

"Even the best child care solutions can be unreliable," said Alexander. "Everybody's going to need a patch at some point. Our goal is to be a reliable patch that you can use when your other existing regular child care is not available."

Parents tout benefits

Gratti said Alexander benefits from spending time with other children. He also brings home crafts.

"When he comes home, he talks about his day and all the things he did and who he played with," said Gratti. "It's a great opportunity to get him interacting with others other than his family."

PATCH sends regular text updates to parents.

"I like it," said Gratti. "It makes me feel more comfortable that he's right here in the same building as me. I get the text updates every hour to an hour and a half. That makes me feel good and I appreciate that a lot."

Heidi Scholl, a staff pharmacist at Evangelical, recently took her children to the PATCH center.

"My kids had a great time at PATCH yesterday and asked to go back," said Scholl. "My kids had a wonderful day. They talked about it the whole drive home and asked if they could go back again."

Both of her children are school-age. When they have days off during the school year, she utilizes family or arranges work schedules to be off work when they are. In the summer, they attend a daytime summer camp.

"We used PATCH because our kids were off school for parent-teacher conferences," said Scholl. "We had some activities planned for that evening and it made it handy to be able to pick them up at PATCH and not have to drive elsewhere. It was definitely a time-saver."

Scholl said she likes knowing there's a backup option when family members are unavailable or there's a snow day. The kids enjoyed the variety of activities.

"I really enjoyed getting to take my kids for lunch at the hospital cafeteria and then take them back to PATCH for the remainder of the day," she said. "It was also really nice to be able to walk down the hallway to pick them up, and then go straight home."

The communication with the PATCH teachers was "very good," said Scholl.

"We received a 'welcome' text the day prior just outlining what we needed to send with our kids," she said. "I also received multiple texts from the teachers throughout the day with pictures of my kids working on activities."

PATCH is open Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Those hours will be evaluated and expanded if the need presents itself.

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