Located at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, surrounded by old country stores and taffy shops, is a theme park that, for the staff who work there, operates as a self-contained community.
Dollywood Parks and Resorts is a destination for families – “guests” as they are best known by staff – to play, celebrate and be charmed by Southern hospitality as the park’s namesake, artist and icon Dolly Parton , grew up and came to embody.
But someone has to do all that charm, and not everyone has the magic touch, says Tim Berry, vice president of human resources for the Dollywood Company. To attract the best ‘hosts’, as resort staff are called, the company must be a fun place to work, with great benefits and an environment where people feel comfortable and supported to work. fully flourish.
“We need to be more than just a job for them,” Berry says, noting that the Dollywood Company considers its people its “differentiator.”
For years, Dollywood has built a following of benefits for its employees, which includes an on-site family health center, a park chaplain and full tuition coverage for anyone interested in pursuing their studies through the GROW U corporate partnership program.
These offerings have also expanded in recent years to include childcare benefits.
During the pandemic, company officials began hearing about the increased challenges employees were facing finding childcare. Many have noted in employee surveys that child care programs in their area are full and this hinders their ability to work. (Across the country, an estimate 16,000 child care programs permanently closed during the first two years of the pandemic, representing a loss of approximately 9% of all licensed programs in the United States)
“Childcare was one of those aspects of life that we know people need, and we had to find a way to accommodate that,” Berry says.
The company had considered offering a childcare benefit to its guests in the past, including an on-site daycare where they could drop off their children at the start of their shift and pick them up at the end. But the Dollywood company has about 3,800 employees, and not all of those employees are work from 9 to 5.
Although some staff, such as those in marketing and accounting positions, work traditional office hours, many of those who work in guest services and support park operations work weekends. , in the evening and during the holidays.
“Our need for childcare [runs the] full range,” says Berry, “from traditional hours to weird, personalized, and unique needs when people work.”
To make an on-site childcare program available to all staff, Berry adds, the company would have to operate it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That was neither feasible nor practical.
Instead, as the need for a childcare solution grew, Dollywood found an alternative option in WeeCare, a network of childcare service providers.
In the summer of 2021, Dollywood announcement a partnership with WeeCare, describing it as an “unprecedented childcare benefit for hosts working at Smoky Mountains Theme Park.” WeeCare’s charge is to connect Dollywood employees in need of child care with one of its vast network providers, which CEO Jessica Chang says includes more than 65,000 child care professionals. children, of whom approximately 6,000 are licensed door-to-door providers. To start, Dollywood pays employees a monthly allowance for child care costs: $100 for each employee’s first child and $50 for each additional child.
This monthly contribution probably covers around 10-15% of the childcare costs of Dollywood employees. In other parts of the country, however, it wouldn’t go that far.
In Sevier County, Tennessee, where Dollywood is located, the median cost of infant care is between $650 and $900 per month, according to 2022 estimates found in the US Department of Labor. National Child Care Price Database. Toddler care, which tends to be slightly less expensive, ranges from $590 to $715 per month in the region. The average monthly cost for a WeeCare provider in Tennessee, according to the company, is between $650 and $700.
Just two years later, Berry says adoption of the program has been slow but is growing.
Last year, Dollywood Company employee retention increased by 11%. Berry can’t say for sure if this is from the Child Care Benefit – the company is constantly making changes to increase this rate – but he acknowledges it’s a significant improvement.
“It’s a real need,” Berry says, “and we’re going to do our best to maintain it, and I hope other companies do the same.”
In fact, a number of other companies are doing the same.
In the wake of the pandemic, which has made the American public aware of the difficulty for families of find and pay for childcare and how essential buying these child care services is business operations and growthmany companies are exploring their options, wondering how they could help their staff take care of the children in return – the hope goes – less attrition and more focused, satisfied and productive employees.
This slow, organic trend accelerated earlier this year. In February, about six months after the CHIPS and scientific law was passed to bolster U.S. research and manufacturing of semiconductors and other technologies, the Biden administration announcement it would require recipients of $39 billion in federal CHIPS grants to provide childcare services to all employees. According to US Department of Commercesemiconductor makers seeking more than $150 million in federal funding must submit plans to provide “affordable, accessible, reliable and high-quality” care.
The announcement was met with fierce rebukes and spirited praise.
Some see it as a mistake – a distraction from the real goal of getting the United States to treat and fund early care and education as a public good, much the same as K-12.
“If you leave it up to employers to basically determine child care for their employees, I don’t think that’s going to get us where we want to be as a country,” says Laura Bornfreund, senior researcher and early childhood education adviser. and elementary with the Education Policy Program of New America, a Washington-based think tank.
“I see the appeal of this as a short-term way to expand the offerings for families,” adds Bornfreund, “but for me it could send us down what I see as the wrong path for a long-term solution. term, becoming more of an employer-led benefit than the public investment we need.
For others, it’s a smart workaround by an administration that saw its priorities for child care and early childhood access largely sidelined during congressional talks in 2021. And even if that doesn’t is not “the” solution, it is “a” solution to the crisis which keep on going For intensify in the early childhood and education sectors.
“At the end of the day, thanks to something like the CHIPS announcement, we have more employers who are going to care even more about childcare,” notes Anne Hedgepeth, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Child Care. Aware of America, a national nonprofit organization. which promotes quality and accessible childcare services. “The momentum there is really important. Employers who have to meet and deal with the challenges of child care become employers who want to see a better system.
When it comes to employer involvement in child care, the devil is in the details. Interviews with a dozen early care and education providers, policy experts, advocates and employers reveal just how complex and controversial this issue is.
The reality is that there are a number of existing and emerging models for employer involvement in child care, each with varying degrees of success and scalability.
What is clear, however, is that workplace child care benefits are not some abstract idea floated by corporations or the US government for the distant future. They are already there and the employees are already benefiting from them.
When most people hear “employer-sponsored child care,” as this benefit is better known, they probably think of on-site child care. In this model, programs are established at employees’ workplaces – in an office building or other co-located premises – and often in partnership with an outside childcare provider or network, such as Bright Horizons or KinderCare. .