The national child-care crisis is taking a toll on workers, their families, and employers every day—as Americans struggle to find and pay for care for their kids to be able to work.

Some individual businesses have stepped in with subsidies and services for their staff. But the national scale and severity of the crisis also show the clear need for public-sector support as well.  To that end, president Biden’s executive order this month targeting child-care affordability and accessibility is a move in the right direction.

A pilot program in Michigan called Tri-Share is also worth closer examination.  That public-private partnership  splits the cost of child care equally between the family, the employer, and the state of Michigan.

We reached out to Cheryl Bergman, Executive Director of the Michigan Women’s Commission, which administers the program, to talk about how Tri-Share might be a model for more broadly addressing the child-care crisis. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

How did the idea for Tri-Share originate, and what was the role of business leaders in shepherding this public-private partnership?

The idea of Tri-Share is sharing the cost of child-care between the employer, the employee, and the state of Michigan, equally, hence Tri Share. It started on the west side of our state with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, which is actually one of the most conservative chambers of commerce in one of the most conservative areas of our state. A few years before the pandemic shut us down, a group of community leaders, business owners, and a Republican state representative came together and started talking about the issue of child-care. Employers on the west side, just as everywhere, identified child-care as a major barrier to employment for families. And so they asked, ‘How do we solve for this?’ and started formulating the idea for a public-private partnership. Once the pandemic hit and illuminated the child-care challenges—some would even say crisis—that we have, the Republican representative introduced legislation to fund the pilot and we launched the tri-share pilot program in March of 2021 in three different regions of our state.

At the same time, the Women’s Commission had just come off a state-wide listening tour that ran from late 2019 to early 2020. We traveled the state with the governor, talking to women around the state about their priorities. And they were all economic security issues: paid leave, pay equity, a pathway to higher-wage jobs. And at the top of the list, everywhere we went—it didn't matter if it was a rural area, urban area, suburban area—was affordable, accessible child-care. Given what we found, the Women's Commission was chosen to pilot this program.

At the time, were there other versions of this program in other localities or states that you're aware of?

Not that we're aware of. We understand that Tri-Share is the first of its kind in the country, and I have talked with several states about it. There are three pilots of Tri-Share based on our model that I know of running in three states: the state of New York, a county in Indiana, and North Carolina. With those states who actually decided to implement a pilot, I have talked to them extensively. I truly gave them the good, the bad, and the ugly about the pilot and how it's working. In the end, they went ahead and implemented their pilots as well.

That must be exciting to be serving as a model nationwide.

It is. There’s a little pressure there too, but no, it is really exciting that it's gained a lot of attention from other states.

As I understand it, Tri-Share has already expanded beyond the initial pilot. At this point, how many different families or children are you serving through the program?

As of the end of March 2023, the program includes 140 participating employers, 277 families, 292 children, and 239 child-care providers across 13 different regions, which cover 59 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

What have you seen in terms of outcomes, whether for parents, children, or employers? I’m curious about both quantitative data and anecdotes about how Tri-Share has affected families.

We hired an outside firm to do an evaluation of the pilot program, published at the end of last year. In those three regions covered under the pilot, employers reported that retention increased by 80%. Of course, those numbers were still a little early, so many outcomes are difficult to measure. Attraction, for example, was difficult to get data on because, according to employers, they’re just starting to get the word out that they offer Tri-Share as a benefit. As a result, they weren’t able to tell us much about attraction, but they’ve already seen effects on retention. We had one mid-sized manufacturer over in the Great Lakes Bay region who had  really high turnover, and as soon as they started offering Tri Share, their turnover pretty much just stopped. They have very loyal employees now.

I don't know if you have children or not, but I know when I had children in child-care 30 years ago, if someone would've said, ‘We're going to pay two thirds of your child-care,’ that would've been a game changer for me. And I would've stayed with that employer. So it's working.

And then for the families, wow, it is changing lives. Like I said, it’s a game changer. Just yesterday, we had a public meeting with the Michigan Women’s Commission, and the woman who leads the Grand Rapids hub told us the story of a single mother who has been with Vantage Plastics, a mid-sized manufacturer, for 12 years. She was always a very loyal employee, but when she became a single mother, the cost of child-care meant that she had to quit. She just couldn’t afford the full cost of child-care and stay in that job. Then, her employer heard about Tri-Share, which is operating in their region, and implemented it. Now, that employee is using Tri-Share and has stayed on the job. Not only that, but she got a promotion. Her now-two-year-old little girl is in quality child-care. She no longer has to worry about where her daughter is while she’s at work, when before she had to piece together child-care with family and friends. It's amazing what Tri-Share is doing for families in Michigan. That’s just one example of how it’s changing lives.

We've got several others. I just got a couple of our hubs put it due reports every month, and they'll send quotes or little stories from participants and one person just put in, this has changed our lives. We no longer live paycheck to paycheck. And I mean, it's amazing what it's doing for families in Michigan, and I don't know if you're aware of this, but the eligibility for Share for Families is what we call the ALICE population. So asset limited, income constrained, employed. So it's those families who make just too much to qualify for the state child-care subsidy, but still struggle to afford. So right now it's 200% of the federal poverty level to 325% of the federal poverty level.

Why do you think there’s been such a nationwide push towards employer-sponsored child-care benefits, whether that’s employee advocates, state programs, or federal legislation like the provisions in the CHIPS Act?

Well, I can speak from Michigan's perspective, and I'm assuming it's pretty much the same everywhere. Employees are hurting. The labor market's tight. They're coming to government saying, ‘What can you do?’ One of the big things that we were testing with this pilot was whether employers would put skin in the game. Would they really put their money where their mouth is? And they seem to be willing to do this. Honestly, when we first piloted Tri-Share, we had no idea. In the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, employers were saying, ‘Yes, we need this and we'll do this,’ but was it going to work in all the other parts of the state Would other employers see this as a good investment? And so far, they really have, and it's still catching on. It takes a while for the word to get out there, even after hiring a marketing firm that did some paid media statewide, but that saturation still takes a long time. Employers are still learning about it still, and we're not statewide yet.

What were other questions you were trying to answer through the pilot program, aside from whether employers would put skin in the game? And what were the answers to those questions?

The big question was that: would employers actually put skin in the game? And I think we've answered that. Yes, they will. We also wanted to know how this would work. Just mechanically and logistically, will it work? The idea is that these hubs, some of them cover maybe one larger county, but some cover much larger areas. We have one hub that covers the whole Upper Peninsula, and that’s 18 counties. The idea was to alleviate the administrative burden from employers and the child-care providers, and put it all on the hub. They are responsible for a lot for a little bit of administrative dollars. It’s on our facilitator hubs to recruit the employers; help the families find licensed child-care, whether in-home or center-based; collect the payments from the employer, the employee, and the state of Michigan; pay the providers in a timely fashion; and collect all the data that we need to continue evaluating and tweaking the program. So it's a heavy lift for these hubs. So was that going to work?

We also wanted to ealuate effects on the employer: Would it actually helping with retention? We’ve found that yes, it does. The numbers on attraction are still unclear, but anecdotally, we’re seeing that it has improved attraction. With those employers who started offering Tri-Share almost three years ago, the word is out with the community, and people want to go work there because they offer Tri-Share. We also have had cases where individual employees find out about Tri-Share and go to their employers and say, ‘Hey, would you enroll in this?’ So it's happened both ways.

It sounds like you've gotten some pretty good answers—at least good enough to expand nearly statewide.

Yes, the program is now nearly statewide, and we are currently in the process of putting together a five-year plan to share to the governor, a report commissioned by Governor Whitmer’s office. That plan will be wrapped up in May, and it will answer the questions of how many children we could serve if we scaled this up statewide and what resources would be necessary to do so. The data shows about 300,000 children in that eligibility population that could be served by Tri-Share. We’re looking at how much it would cost to serve all those 300,000 children, and how the administration of the program would need to change in order to make that happen. Those are the big questions we're answering right now, and we'll have those answers—or at least a plan for those answers—in May that will be presented to the governor, and we'll go from there.

That's very exciting. So it could become kind of a permanent fixture of Michigan's care infrastructure?

I would love to see that. I've been in the weeds on this thing since the beginning, and I honestly believe that it is a workforce and economic development tool. For example, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is responsible for bringing in businesses to Michigan. Earlier, you mentioned the CHIPS act and the requirement from the United States Commerce Department that says, ‘If you want a piece of the 40 billion, you have to offer affordable child-care to your employees.’ Well, our Economic Development corporation is using the Tri-Share program as a tool to attract those chip manufacturers because we have a solution built in for them to meet mandate from the Commerce Department. That’s one way Tri-Share has been an economic driver.

In general, child-care is absolutely an economic driver. The Women's Commission got into it because at the height of the pandemic, so many women had dropped out of the workforce. We're now starting to get back up to pre-pandemic levels of employment, but we wanted to help solve for some of this child-care. That’s where our big push and our big initiative came from. So yeah,

That's so exciting, especially given Michigan’s history of being a manufacturing hub, which has been a major driver of growth for the state.

And you'll see in our evaluation, we show the type of industries that offer Tri-Share by percentage. Right now, manufacturers are the largest percentage, followed by healthcare. But all kinds of employers are participating in Tri-Share, from manufacturing and healthcare to education and hospitality, and the type of industry and the size of businesses that are participating is very broad.

At the beginning of the call, you mentioned that the idea for Tri-Share originated in the business community. Why do you think it was necessary to bring in the public sector to lead and administer the program?

Traditionally, child-care has just not been a focus for employers. They’ve said, “Families, you’re on your own.” I'm thinking back to my own early career, when I had young children. The idea that my employer would help out wasn’t even a thought I had. I just handled it all and showed up and did my work. And if I had to pay extra because I was late to pick up my child, that's what I did. I did not bring my employer into that equation at all, because that's just how it was. It’s almost like employers needed a public partner in order to get in the business of helping with child-care at all.

Now, times are changing. Employers are starting to see that many women are saying, “Screw it. It’s not worth it to work. I can't afford it.” For many women, it makes more financial sense to stay home with a child than to work and spend all of their money on child-care, and a lot of them are making the decision to leave the workforce and stay home instead. Even so, we weren’t sure that the employers would get on board with this for sure.

And what does the public sector bring to the table in this partnership?

Well, a third of the their employee's child-care cost, to start. That's a big deal. And we're paying the administrative costs and administering the program seamlessly so that it’s easy for employers to enroll their employees, determine their eligibility, and find them child-care. They're getting a lot for not a ton of investment. They're paying a third of their employee's child-care cost, and the state's paying a third, and the state is finding their family's child-care if they need it and taking care of the payments to providers.

Right, that's just not something a human resources department is equipped to do.

No. Usually, when we first approach employers, it starts with the human resources department. That’s their first concern—they assume that it’s going to be a huge administrative burden on them, but we are making sure that it's not. They're getting a lot from the state government.

What are your predictions for the trajectory of employer-sponsored child-care or these kinds of public-private partnerships? Put a different way, what will the child-care landscape look like for working parents in 10 years?

Personally, I would love to see universal child-care. Period. Do I think that’ll happen 10 years from now? I mean, we saw a proposal introduced by Biden at the very beginning of his administration, which is not happening. He wanted no family to pay more than 7% of their income on child-care, which would be amazing, but I don't think that'll happen in 10 years. Who knows.

At the state level, it could in some form. Governor Whitmer has announced that Universal Preschool will be in place by the end of her term, which she’s already proposed and has a place in her budget. That is her intention, and the legislature is controlled by her political party, so it’s a possibility. Even still, that’s just for the preschool kids. We still have the zero to three population.

In 10 years, I would love to see Tri-Share as a common benefit that all employers know about and offer to their employees, and that is available to all the children and families who are eligible statewide. Of course, I’d like to see that sooner than 10 years out, which is the intention of the five-year plan that we’re currently putting together. In 10 years, I hope that the program isn’t running out of the Women’s Commission anymore and is instead in our economic development corporation. Because it really is an economic driver. That was a big question when we started the program: Is it a child-care subsidy or is it a workforce development and economic development program? Well, it's both. But now that we're three years in, it is truly a public-private partnership that benefits employees, employers, and our economy as a whole. It’s an economic driver; it is not like the child-care subsidy.

What do you think are the most important distinctions between the way Tri-Share works and the way child-care subsidies work?

I’m no child-care expert, but from what I’ve observed, providers and families have found it very easy to participate in share. The child-care subsidy can come with more administrative burdens, with greater difficulty proving eligibility or becoming eligible. We can be more flexible in determining eligibility and running the program because they use federal dollars, and we are only using state general funds. Obviously, we serve a different population. We don't serve those who are below 200% and are eligible for the subsidy, but our hub do help employees who meet the subsidy eligibily requirements to apply for the child-care subsidy if they aren’t eligible for Tri-Share.

The hubs sound like a resource that a lot of parents could benefit from.

Absolutely. Many parents don't have the time, and our child-care system is pretty complicated. With Tri-Share, we the flexibility to make it simple.

In the absence of programs like Tri Share, what are ways that employers can support caregivers and support parents?

Women are often tasked with care, whether it’s elder care, child-care, or care of other family members. They are often the primary caregivers. To help them, workplaces should invest in paid family leave, paid sick leave, flexible schedules, and remote work. All of those things are things employers could do immediately besides paying for child-care.

And what are ways that employers have invested directly in child-care in Michigan?

Many employers have tried to make child-care investments on their own. Across Michigan, some do have their own child-care facilities on their premises. But for many employers, once they start digging into offering on-site child-care, they start running into problems like legal liabilities and the cost. Even our hospital here in Lansing used to have on-site child-care but has since stopped doing it for those reasons.

For employers who do want to have their own child-care center, Tri-Share is changing the way employers approach those investments. For example, General Motors is building an electric vehicle plant in Lansing, Michigan. They’re talking about building a child-care facility for workers at the plant that would also be open to the public, and General Motor has already said, ‘When we get this built, we want to participate in Tri-Share.’

Why is it worth it for employers to make these kinds of investments in child-care subsidies, in child-care facilities, and in support for caregivers?

Retention and attraction, which seems to be the name of the game. Supporting child-care just makes for more loyal employees and happier employees. They know that their children are safe and cared for with a licensed child-care provider while they're at work for their employer. It just makes a ton of sense to me. It's a no-brainer as an employer to invest in the child-care of their employees.