Restaurant Workers Deserve Affordable Child Care—That's Also Open Really Late

"The choice between leaving your child alone and potentially losing the job that provides for you and your family is unfairly impossible and also understandably simple," says west~bourne founder Camilla Marcus. She's found another way.

Vivvi Childcare
Photo: Frank Oudeman/Otto

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Camilla Marcus is the founder of west~bourne cafe in New York City and the co-founder of TechTable, a hospitality technology thought leadership platform, and a partner of Pound for Pound Consulting, a boutique strategic and creative agency for hospitality-related initiatives.

The lack of affordable, accessible child care, is a nationwide, industry-agnostic crisis and it hits the hospitality business especially hard. My team and I decided to do something about it.

One in four families spends more than 10 percent of their income on child care, according to a 2016 report from Carsey School of Public Policy. Low-income families spend 19.8 percent, or nearly double that. For some segments of the population, including New York hospitality workers, the percentages are even higher. In the state of New York, the average cost of child care for an infant is $15,394, or $1,283 per month. Even with the recent minimum wage hike, the Economic Policy Institute estimates it would take 26 weeks for a single-income family earning $15 an hour to cover the cost of child care for that one infant. Add a four-year-old to the equation and you're looking at $27,752. Put another way, that's 98 percent of the income of an entry-level server, host, or cook in New York City.

It isn't just the astronomical cost that makes this issue so critical. For cooks and servers, baristas and bartenders—frankly anyone in the industry earning an hourly wage—work days are long and irregular. There is no such thing as 9-to-5 in a restaurant, especially if you factor in the commute to and from work, which is often into the city while home is a significant subway, train, or car ride away. The result is penalties for parents when childcare breaks down that result in missed days, on average 24 per year.

And it's not just a problem for hospitality employees. For employers, finding and keeping great talent is the holy grail and the most formidable hurdle to maintaining a successful operation. In this industry, your people are everything. If you can't get them to show up to work on time—or at all—your business will struggle.

I experienced this first-hand when I opened my cafe west~bourne in downtown Manhattan last January. I was initially much more focused on parental leave than child care as a gating issue given that's most discussed and buzzed about publicly. Of course, both are important and in an ideal world restaurant worker would have access to both—and to affordable healthcare and living wages—but I didn't realize until I was an owner making these decisions just how important child care is.

Even as a new brand that no one had heard of before, we were able to bring on remarkable team members, many of whom happened to be parents—often single parents. Shortly into their tenure, we saw troubling inconsistencies emerge with time and attendance. It wasn't a lack of desire or planning to show up at the start of a shift or to stay through to the end; stable, dependable child care coverage that was missing.

I wasn't alone in this experience. I polled more than 20 restaurant owners in my neighborhood and they all said the same thing: Child care is a massive problem affecting our community, yet it's one that felt too complicated and too expensive to figure out and fix.

The hard reality was that meant we were all losing great people. The choice between leaving your child alone and potentially losing the job that provides for you and your family is unfairly impossible and also understandably simple. There simply is no choice.

That's heartbreaking on so many levels, and it's also bad economics. The restaurant industry is one of the largest employer bases in the country, and more importantly, it's one of the few where the barriers to entry are low and where economic mobility provides real opportunity. Affordable, accessible child care would mean more workers (especially women) could enter—and stay—in our field, narrowing the wage gap, creating a more stable middle class, and boosting the economy. It's a win-win-win, so I knew we had to find a solution, for us and for our industry at large, no matter how complex or how long it might take.

As my team and I set out to seek viable child care options, about a year ago we were serendipitously introduced to the founders of Vivvi as they were in the early stages of starting up. That initial conversation turned into a meaningful partnership through which I was able to advocate for restaurant workers and together create the first of its kind, democratic access to high quality, developmentally-focused, employer-sponsored childcare near restaurant employees' places of work in Soho—at hours that actually fit within their jobs.

Launched earlier this summer, Vivvi is uniquely working with businesses ranging from 50 employees to 2,000 and the first to offer a payment structure that doesn't require massive expenditures or long-term commitments. It's also staffed with certified full-time teachers, who are paid full-time salaries at twice the average rate of child care workers in New York City, in addition to benefits and equity in the company. Vivvi's downtown locations, the second of which was just announced near the World Trade Center, are ideally located for many of the city's restaurant employees, including my own. And starting in October, the company will offer a 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. time slot at the same cost as regular daytime hours.

This fall is also when I gave birth to my first child, who hadn't yet been conceived when I first ventured to unwind the hornet's nest that is child care. I'm glad to know that I'll have access to care that works for my schedule and allows me to answer questions about what I'll do once the baby is born with a confident reply: No, my husband isn't taking over my business, and yes, I'm planning to go back to work. That's vital to me—and it's even more important to know that others in the industry will now also have that freedom of choice.

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