Childcare, flexible schedules: How Tennessee companies are adapting for working parents

The Tennessean | It’s been almost a year since Tyson Foods opened its first on-site childcare facility in Humboldt, a town with a chicken-processing facility around the midway point between Nashville and Memphis.

The addition makes it a leader among dozens of Tennessee companies that are increasingly prioritizing the wants and needs of working parents to incentivize them to stay in the workforce despite rising childcare expenses. As Tyson’s childcare center opened last year, the labor shortage reached 100,000 unfilled jobs across Tennessee, according to a Tennessee Business Leadership Council report.

The $21 billion food company cited rising childcare costs and its goal of improving recruitment and retention rates as reasons for the venture.

“Having access to care can be life-changing for shift workers, some of whom start their workday very early in the morning at an hour traditional childcare facilities are not operating,” a Tyson spokesperson told The Tennessean.

The nearly $5 million Tyson Learning Center can employ 20 staff members and accommodate over 100 kids aged five and under while their parents work in the nearby poultry processing plant.

From Volkswagen to Dollar General to Bank of America, major employers in Tennessee are offering benefits aimed at keeping parents engaged in the workforce. Specific reasoning varies across companies, but the central motivation is simple: Employees are demanding change, and employers have to listen.

“With the opening of the Tyson Learning Center, Tyson Foods demonstrates its commitment to help remove the employment barrier childcare can have on potential team members,” a Tyson spokesperson said.

When parent-focused benefits became a ‘must-have’

Increased concentration on family benefits can be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic as people refocused their priorities to emphasize work-life balance, said Best Place for Working Parents Program Director Sadie Funk.

“When COVID hit, all of a sudden family-friendly (atmosphere) became something that no longer was nice to have, but really a must-have to keeping working parents and especially our working mothers, at the table,” Funk said.

Best Place for Working Parents, an organization that works with companies to increase parent-focused amenities and policies, held its 2024 National Summit at the Four Seasons Nashville in May.

Just 10 months into the pandemic, 72% of moms reported being able to change their work hours throughout the day to better support their home lives, according to a 2021 study from predictive analytics company Werk Labs. That same study found that 88% of moms said working during the pandemic “provided clarity with what they want in a future employer.”

Essentially, Funk said that parents got a taste of a more equitable work-home balance during lockdown and, when it lifted, they weren’t willing to give up that freedom.

“As we started coming out of COVID, what I like to say is, there was ‘the great shakeout.’ Companies had put a lot of things in place, and then there was a shakeout to see what’s really going to stay and what’s going to go away,” Funk said. “What we’re seeing, by and large, is that these family-friendly policies really are here to stay and continue to grow.”

Volkswagen, Bank of America: Creating ‘an arc’ of family benefits

Healthcare, remote work, flexibility and paid time off are the employee benefits that 90% of all businesses working with Best Place for Working Parents are prioritizing.

In Tennessee, 50% of Best Place for Working Parents-affiliated businesses are offering some type of childcare assistance. Those range from direct subsidies, on-site care or another method like a pre-tax benefit account.

But several firms are going above and beyond.

“When we think about those policies that stand out, we see that nursing benefits and parental leave are often those tipping-point policies that are really going to set you apart from your peers,” Funk said.

That was Volkswagen’s goal when leadership at the Chattanooga plant noticed a significant decline in the percentage of female employees five years ago. Of the nearly 5,000 employees at the plant, about 4,200 of them work shifts on the assembly line at the 24-hour factory, which poses a challenge to implementing family-friendly policies.

VW Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources Burkhard Ulrich said the company had to work around those restrictions to implement the changes that employee-resource groups requested. These included increasing the amount of emergency time off employees can take without penalty to five days; creating maternity parking spaces; building out a nursing room; and creating a “bridge-to-work” program where women returning from maternity leave have shortened shifts for the first six weeks.

“We’ve been able to increase the percentage of female employees over the last two years,” Ulrich said. “But there’s always a challenge to keeping them all in the workforce when they’re starting a family.”

At Bank of America, the goal has been to provide employees “an arc” of family benefits, from starting a family to childcare and eldercare, said Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources Wende Frye.

“One of the things that causes loyalty to dwindle is when companies fail to recognize that in order for us to be our best at work, we need to feel supported to be our best at home too, “Frye said.

Through its family-planning reimbursement program, Bank of America will provide up to$20,000 to employees for fertility, surrogacy or adoption. The company also reimburses up to $240 per child for monthly childcare expenses and offers a completely free referral service to help families identify child and adult care solutions in their area.

Frye said she keeps a “treasure chest” of stories about the positive impacts she’s seen the bank’s family-centric policies have on employees.

For example, Bank of America helped one employee whose son’s special needs weren’t addressed in a local public school. The company connected her with an organization that provides resources to children with special needs. Now, the boy is going on two years in anew school that better meets his needs.

“Every time I see her, she embraces me,” Frye said. “Her son’s life is changed forever because of this, and it’s thanks to those community partnerships that can really make a difference.”

Companies leading Tennessee for working parents

Some of the companies included in Tennessee’s network of Best Place for Working Parents include Bank of America, Tyson Foods, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, Mars and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee.

“Family friendly is business friendly,” Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson said at the Best Place for Working Parents conference in Nashville. “If businesses can see the impact of these policies on their employees — attraction, retention, productivity, engagement — then our families, our businesses, and quite frankly, all of our communities will win.”

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