Billions of dollars of child-care funding just expired after Congress failed to extend pandemic-era subsidies that have kept the industry afloat. The loss of funding could force as many as 70,000 child-care programs to close and 3.2 million children to lose care, exacerbating an already critical shortage of affordable care in the US and jeopardizing the recent historic labor-force gains made by working mothers with young children.

What should employers do to respond to this crisis? For answers, we spoke with Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

What is the role of the private sector now in addressing the child-care crisis?

Companies need to be thinking along two lines right now. The first is internal, because unlike other countries that have a more developed social safety net or social welfare policy, longstanding paid family leave, longstanding subsidized child care, we don't have that in the United States. So we need to recognize that we need to start with our current reality, which is: In this country, we have made choices throughout history giving the private sector quite a bit of power over labor, over how they shape jobs, over what the employee experience is like.

Some of it was actually because unions wanted to maintain bargaining power, and then unions have completely lost so much power, going from 30% of all workers down to 6% of civilian workers. And even with the union activity since the pandemic and high union approval rates, I think it's important to note that more jobs were created last year that were non-union than union. We need to keep the big picture in mind that some of these movements, Starbucks and Amazon, are getting a lot of coverage and energy. You don't want to minimize that. However, in the larger scheme of things, it's still relatively small. Employers know this. They have outsized power, and they can do a lot.

And so one of the most important things that they can do right now is recognize that we are in a crisis. We have always been in a crisis. The pandemic opened a lot of people's eyes, because we had this notion that somehow child care was always a family responsibility. We didn't want to know about it. ‘You take care of that and then you bring your best self to work and oh, we don't understand why women are leaving the workforce. Why are they not going on and advancing in their careers? We don't understand why they're making these choices.’ I think the pandemic really helped people see how the whole system works and that you can't have your women's leadership cohort without having adequate child care. That always drove me nuts that people couldn't see that connection. I think it's much clearer now.

So businesses, the first thing to do is recognize that they need to be part of creating solutions to care infrastructure, that they have a responsibility right now. Because of the way that we've set up our political and economic system, businesses have a lot of power. Number two, there was a Harvard Business School report that came out called The Caring Company, and basically what they said is companies really need to be aware of the caregiving responsibilities of their workers, and the first place to start is data. So many companies don't even know who has caregiving responsibilities among their employees, so they don’t know what to do about it. They don't know what kind of impact that has on their workers.

So honestly, kind of low-hanging fruit. I know a lot of companies don't like to gather data because then it means they need to do something about it, but they need to do something about it. They have the opportunity to do something about it. What the Harvard Business School report showed was that of the workers that they surveyed, 75% had some form of caregiving responsibility. And it's not just child care. With the cliff, thankfully it's gotten the attention that it deserves, but we're talking people also have increasing elder care responsibilities. There is disability care, there is short-term sick care, there is long-term acute care. The bottom line is we're human beings. We're not robots. We need care for ourselves.

So that's the first thing, is understand the care responsibilities that your workers have. And then ask them, what kind of impact does that have on you? What kind of stress does that create? How hard is it to do your job? What do you need to be able to do your job effectively? What would help? Ask the question. You don't necessarily have to deliver on all of it, but you can't make good decisions unless you know what your workers are facing. So collect the data and then start really giving it some real thought. What is your plan? How are you going to address that? Will you address that? Is it going to be another survey that you do that you don't do anything with—which, as we all know, creates a sense of moral injury and dampens motivation and enthusiasm and trust and loyalty and all of that?

So I understand why people don't collect data if they don't want to do anything, because then that's going to make things worse, but commit to doing something. And when I say doing something, low, low hanging fruit is the employee resource group. Let people know that they're heard and seen and give them an opportunity to come together and share solutions and give them a space to not be so invisible. A lot of people don't share about their family responsibilities at work because they feel like they'll somehow be seen as a lesser worker. Some work environments have encouraged that. People have created cultures where you try to hide that. And so maybe investigate and interrogate your own culture. Are you that kind of culture? Is that the kind of culture you want to be? What are your own care responsibilities? And that means leadership ,too, being very honest about what their own care responsibilities are, what their own needs are, how they're able to integrate care and work. I should say paid work, because care work is also work. It's just unpaid.

The other thing to think about is that there are other companies who are industry leaders, sector leaders, that are doing interesting things. You don't have to do what they're doing. For instance, people talk about creating onsite child care. That might be a good solution for you. It might not, especially if you're moving into a more flexible or hybrid environment. Onsite child care might not be the right answer, but are there tuition reimbursements you could give? Is there a way that you could help people breathe more life into the systems that they already do use? There was a Ford Auto plant a couple decades ago, and one of the things that they did—they didn't create an onsite child care, but they did breathe life into a lot of the family cares that a lot of people used closer to their own homes that they actually preferred, and gave them more flexible hours. So what do your employees and workers need and want and prefer? What people want changes over time. If you've got a young kid, you might not want to send them to a larger daycare center. You might want to do something very small and in-home. When they get to be a little older, you might want a child development center, more of a preschool environment, so there's more social interaction.

So figure out what people want and recognize that it changes based on what they need. Do that research. What are other industry industry leaders doing? Are there other bright spots out there that you could learn from and then get input internally on, maybe put together a task force or a group? What would work? Do some user-centered design thinking with your own workers as the centerpiece. And then once you come up with your plan, recognize that it's an experiment. Pilot something with your data and analysis and then make tweaks and iterate. It's like any good work redesign. It's the same principle. Ask, plan, do, test, and then iterate and revise.

And once you've kind of found something and you've got some good data and a story to share, then share it externally and be part of that larger conversation. Be part of the leadership of, ‘Look, we as a business community need to address this. This is how we are doing it.’ Try to create that cultural norm that business has a role to play, because they do and they can move quickly. Government moves very slowly and, obviously, sadly with the political division, not at all in some cases.

So that's what you can do. That's a lot that you can do right now with your own power, within your own company, and within your own industry and sector. That's number one. Number two, what companies can and should do—it’s a bigger ask, and that is to recognize finally that care, whether it's child care or elder care, is a public good. It's like public education.

The other thing is there are dependent care flexible spending accounts—those amounts haven't changed in years. That's a really simple small fix. Granted, that would require some discussion with government offices, but my god, when my kids were little, it was like 2,500 bucks a year per kid. I don't think it's changed. My kids are now in their twenties. Even then, that was a drop in the bucket. That was maybe a couple weeks. So recognize that what you do give is sort of paltry. It doesn't really do much anyway, and it's hard to rethink those guidelines.

You mentioned companies should be thinking along two lines. If the first is internal, what are the external considerations?

Even the Chamber of Commerce, their foundation has all these fabulous reports about how critical early care and education is, and then it's not really clear what their message is about what you're supposed to do as a business. What I would really encourage companies to think about is care infrastructure. As Ai-jen Poo says, it's the work that makes all other work possible. We as a human species need to reproduce ourselves. We need the next generation. And as human beings, part of what makes us happy is having family and people to care and love. That's critical, that we're not just automatons going to work all the time. Recognize that if you get everything all set in your company, that's one thing, and there are hundreds of others. You've got contract workers, gig workers, they're not going to have that same opportunity. You've got a lot of low-wage workers. We have one of the largest low-wage workforces in the world of all advanced economies. We've already got, excuse my language, a shit ton of crappy jobs, where if you're not even going to pay a basic wage or give up basic hours, certainly these companies are not going to be giving care benefits. And a lot of these are the people who need them the most—without care, it creates utter chaos and then they're not able to work and then they teeter on the brink of poverty.

So this is a larger social problem that we need to understand. That leads to a lot of the political divisions. It leads to a lot of the challenges that we have right now around democracy. My challenge to businesses is educate yourself, understand that. and begin to be part of these larger national conversations. Understand that child care is a market that does not work. It is not like public education. If we asked everybody to pay for kindergarten through 12th grade, it would be $12,000 a year per family on average. And that stat’s a couple years old, it's probably updated. We don't ask people to do that. And yet why do we expect people to do that zero to five? Begin to shift your mindset and recognize paid family leave is how most other countries handle infant care. Most families would prefer to be the child's first caregiver. So let's think more broadly about how we need a care infrastructure that is stable and recognized as a public good. That will then create more stability in the workforce. That will create so much more economic stability, decreased stress. I can point you to a million studies that show this. So be part of this larger solution. You can work on fixing it in your own population, your own company. Then be part of the conversation within the business community. There’s a lot you can do. And then I would say the bigger ask is—it might go against all of that ‘But we don't want mandates and we don't want public blah, blah, blah,’ but you know what? It's a problem that business alone cannot solve if we want it to be an equitable solution.

Of the things that we did at the Better Life Lab was really looking at what we call child care innovations and where things were happening. And even in the absence of federal response, there are a lot of really interesting and uplifting things with businesses involved. Businesses are getting involved in community-building efforts, which I think is really interesting. I’m thinking of Build Up San Mateo County, which is a recognition of how important care is and also a recognition that you can't just give parents more money if there's no place to take your kid, no place to go. And so what they began doing is working with developers and the local community and advocates and local businesses to see if they could create more child care infrastructure. It's a community-wide effort where business plays a really important role.

That's one example of how businesses can be involved in the sphere of really trying to solve community solutions. Right now I think that there are more solutions on the local level. When we did the innovations report, we were like, ‘Wow, there's a lot happening out there. Let's offer reporting grants and see what independent journalists come up with it all around the country.’ And they came up with all sorts of really interesting things happening. There are local efforts in Idaho where local civic leaders and business leaders are getting together to recognize that care is an issue. Another one in Owensboro, Kentucky, of all places—Mitch McConnell land—where again, the community is coming together and they're really trying to bring together parents and activists, people from the child care community, business leaders, political leaders and policy makers and really understand what their own community needs and how they can respond to it.

And then there are things like ReadyNation, a whole organization backed by former CEOs who recognize how critical this is. So business has played a really important role, not only within their own companies, but within communities as well. Not enough. There's a lot more they could do, but there are leaders out there that are kind of showing them the way.

It seems businesses are now being asked to step up to be a growing number of things to their employees: their access to reproductive care, to child care….

It's kind of their own fault. Because businesses haven't wanted to have these more public solutions. When you look at Build Back Better, some businesses were the ones that fought against many of the care provisions. So sorry, you brought it on yourself.

I don't think that businesses should do healthcare either. We understand that that was supposed to be sort of a temporary nice-to-have during wage and price freezes in the second World War, and it just morphed into like, ‘Oh well, we do it this way.’ So I think it's time to really rethink that. I don't think that businesses should be doing all of this social care work. It's not their job. It's the job of the public sector to care for the health and welfare or the wellbeing of citizens. But because of our politics, business has a very strong penchant for saying, ‘We don't want the government to do that.’

Working mothers bear the brunt of the care crisis. WHat can workplaces do to bring working fathers into the conversation?

That's really critical. One of the first things that they can and should do, and some companies already have, is start at the beginning of care, which is with paid leave. Do you offer paid family leave? Are you in a state that offers paid family leave? Do you have a culture that encourages everyone to take paid family leave, including men? There was a law firm that I wrote about a couple of years ago, and it was interesting because it started with this conversation of, ‘We start out with equal men and women in the early classes when we hire, so why do we lose so many women on the way up, and why do we have so few in leadership?’

They did this a whole review and talked to people like, what is not working here? It tracked back to, ‘well, we expect women to do all the care responsibilities. So what if we made it normal that men also have care responsibilities? What if we normalized that care is just a human thing we all do?’ They had a paid leave program with maternity and then two weeks paternity, the primary-secondary thing, which legally is a real problem. And so what they ended up doing is equalizing it and then making it the default, which meant you didn't have to ask for it anymore. You got it. And if you didn't want the full leave, you had to ask not to have it. That's a huge switch for men in particular where asking is difficult still, where we still have these masculine notions that men need to be the breadwinners, where men are worried that they'll be punished or fall behind or they won't be seen as a promotion material if they take the leave. So normalizing leaves for men is critical. Making it the default is almost easier because then it's like, ‘Yeah, this is the culture. Men and women care, people across all genders care, no big deal.’ So I would say think about creating new defaults in your policies that reinforce how care is a human function, not just something women do.

You want good talent. You want the best talent, you want innovation, you want to grow, you want the next best idea. It is so clear from all the research that the best ideas, the best companies, the best cultures come from having diverse experiences, diverse points of view. You do not want to be continuously creating a monoculture, which is really what most of the policies create right now. It reinforces the people who are already in power, who tend to be white men who have not taken on care responsibilities. That creates an awful lot of problems. It creates a lot of, ‘Oh, we've always done it this way,’ status quo stagnation. If you really want to be a company for the 21st century, you can't afford to leave anyone behind.

So I would argue that it's very much in your self-interest to create the kinds of policies and programs that enable all sorts of workers to be able to do their best and want to do their best for you. The care system was already holding on by its fingernails. We subsidized it on the backs of mainly women that we pay poverty wages to and are invisible. American mothers, that's our safety net.

And so as a business, it'll be a brain drain, it'll be a labor force drain. And if you're okay with that—the business case has been made and made and made, and if you don't want to, then you're just going to be replicating corporate monoculture and furthering a lot of stress and anxiety for families contributing to the low birth rate. Because if you look at why people feel like they don't want children, it’s because they’re terrified of child care. They don't know how they'll be able to do it all. We've got these cultures that don't make room for care or caregivers and the consequences are severe and it's mainly women who pay them.

You mentioned design thinking earlier. What does design thinking look like in this context?

Design thinking is all about putting the user at the center. So if I'm a company and I have no idea what my employees are going through, you start with an anonymous survey. What responsibilities do you have? What are they? Are they daily? Are they occasional? Is it child care? Is it disability care? How does it affect your life? How does that impact your ability to work? What kind of stress does that create? What kind of health impacts does that have for you? There are some really good examples from that Harvard Business School study about how to go about asking the questions. Then you get that data and you analyze it and you see certain trends. And then when it comes to what you do about it, get people together and present them with the problem and then ask the question, what's not working?

What would work? What would different solutions look like? And then you throw them all up on the screen or on a board, whatever, and you have your little sticky notes and you vote, and then you work out together. And then you keep kind of funneling down. You have, ‘There's 10 ideas. Well, let's work on these three. These seem to be the most where we got the most heat. Let's workshop them some more.’ And then you go from there to a pilot and then you test it with a small group and then you gather data and then you come back and you share and then what worked and what didn't. And you listen. That's the most important part of design thinking, is you listen and then you iterate and make tweaks from there. And you test again. It works. You share it with a wider audience and you kind of socialize it in a larger context.

You absolutely have to do this with long-term leadership buy-in. It can't just be seen as the baby of one person, because as we know from work redesign, once that one person leaves, your work redesign fails. So you need to make it not only have leadership buy-in, but culture buy-in. Explain and make the case for why this is important and tie what you're doing to your purpose, so that it's not just sort of like, ‘Oh my God, we're so busy and now we’ve got to do this one other thing.’ So again, get the culture buy-in that this is something for the long term that will make it a better place to work, that will make the work better, and that will make the company better.