MadREP in the News

Check out the Madison Region Economic Partnership's recent newsworthy economic development activities. Amazon planning 3.4 million-square-foot, $200 million facility in Cottage Grove & Wisconsin State Journal Logos | Barry Adams

What could be one of the largest Amazon distribution and warehouse facilities in the country is being proposed for Dane County.

The retail giant is working with a developer on plans for a 3.4 million-square-foot facility at the intersection of highways TT and N in the village of Cottage Grove just north of Interstate 94.

The $200 million, five-story project on a 145-acre site would employ 1,500 people, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and serve as a “middle mile” facility catering to large trucks that deliver to other distribution facilities that service delivery vans charged with final destinations for packages.

If approved, construction could begin later this year with the facility opening about 18 months later. No tax assistance has been requested from the village for the project, located within a 300-acre tax incremental financing district, according to Matt Giese, the village’s administrator.

The village has about $900 million in property valuation, and the addition of the Amazon facility would be a boon for decades to come.

“It’s a huge economic win for the village and Dane County as a whole,” Giese said Friday. “It’s just an ideal location.”

Wisconsin is home to several large Amazon facilities, including a 2.6 million-square-foot, $200 million distribution center that opened in 2020 in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. That same year, Amazon opened a 1.3 million-square-foot, $105 million facility in Beloit that employs 500 people and in 2015 opened a $250 million, 1.5 million-square-foot distribution and fulfillment center in Kenosha.

According to Warehouse Automation, a website that tracks large developments, Amazon is building at least six other U.S. facilities that are larger than the proposed Cottage Grove project, including a 4 million-square-foot, $370 million facility in Colorado Springs.

The Cottage Grove development was first introduced to the village in December by the Trammell Crow Co. as “Project Silver Eagle” but later was identified in public meetings as an Amazon facility. Trammell Crow is one of the nation’s largest commercial real estate developers and has been behind several other Amazon projects around the country.

Much of the land for the project had been owned by Cottage Grove Business Development, an LLC with the same address as Greywolf Partners in Cottage Grove and which recently completed the construction of a Comfort Suites hotel in the village. But on Dec. 30, Services purchased 130 acres of land for $29.7 million for the project from Cottage Grove Business Development, according to the state Department of Revenue, a move first reported by the Monona-Cottage Grove Herald Independent.

Resident concerns

The land is across the road from the 180-acre McCarthy Youth and Conservation Park, which offers camping, hiking, cross-country skiing, equestrian trails and restored prairies and wetlands. The Oaks Golf Course is less than a mile to the east of the Amazon site. Nearby and adjacent to the site are small, rural subdivisions where many residents have expressed concern about the size of the project, increased traffic and noise and light pollution.

Jeff Christy, who lives on Sylver Ridge Lane near the site, told the Village Board during a public hearing that he has concerns about stormwater runoff, effects on wells, noise control, adequate buffers, lighting and traffic, and impacts on first responders. David Stampfli, another neighbor on the street, questioned the overall appropriateness of the project on the site.

Heather McIntosh, 51, and her husband, Eric Muellenbach, 48, have lived for the past two years on Oakcrest Circle across Highway TT from the site. They purchased their home and ¾-acre property to get away from city life after living for 20 years in Chicago and another three in an apartment in Madison. The couple frequently have fox, hawks and turkey passing through and worry that the massive development will do irreparable harm to the feel and character of their property.

They want to see more studies on traffic and the impact the project could have on the environment.

“I can’t even imagine what this is going to do,” said McIntosh, a schoolteacher in Madison. “I can’t see this staying the same, and we are just one of many residents who are feeling the same way. I’m all for jobs and economic development, but can we scale it back? Does it need to be this large?”

An early OK

Land for the project has long been eyed by the village for light industrial, warehouse, office space and possibly some housing, which could have taken 20 years to fully be developed. The proposed Amazon project, which is taking about half of the land, could mean a full build-out of the property in 10 years and increasing the village’s tax base by $300 million to $400 million, Giese said. By comparison, a 160-acre commerce park on the south side of the interstate and home to Johnson Health Tech, a Culver’s and the corporate headquarters of Summit Credit Union, took about 20 years to develop. Two acres still remain open.

The Amazon project has received preliminary approval by both the Village Board and Plan Commission, but continues to work its way through the approval process. Two neighborhood Zoom meetings are scheduled for Monday for residents to comment and learn more about the project, while the Plan Commission and Village Board will vote on Feb. 16 and Feb. 21, respectively, on a precise implementation plan. Further approvals would also be needed, according to Giese.

Morgan Baer Blaska, project lead for Trammell Crow, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, but Jason Fields, CEO and president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, said at a recent public hearing that “the community will be better with this project.” On Friday, he released a statement saying that MadREP has “a vested interest in any project that strives to bring well-paying jobs to the region.”

Some particulars

According to the proposal submitted to the village, the footprint of the building would cover about 650,000 square feet, be about 93 feet high and include 90,000 square feet of office space. About 95% of the truck traffic would be coming from or going to Interstate 94, while the site plan includes 60 loading docks, 326 trailer parking stalls and roughly 1,700 parking stalls for employees and visitors.

The site, according to a traffic study commissioned by Trammell Crow, expects to generate 403 trips during peak morning commuter hours between 7 and 8 a.m. Of those, 344 would be passenger vehicles and 59 would be from trucks. In the evening peak there would be 436 trips. Of those, 390 would be from passenger vehicles and 46 from trucks. The property would have two driveway access points along Highway N and two along Highway TT, according to the proposal.

Improvements to the county highways to accommodate the increased traffic load and the turns into and out of the driveways are being studied by village engineers, the county and the developer, Giese said.

“Those improvements will mitigate the large extent of those increases,” Giese said. “There’s a lot of capacity to those roads and those roundabouts that are there, so there’s plenty of capacity to add what’s coming.”

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WiscNews: County asks public to take broadband speed test

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The Madison Region Economic Partnership launched its MadREP Broadband Speed Test initiative and in coordination with the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation will test internet speeds at

The tool will show participants what their current internet speeds are while collecting necessary data for the Madison Region to pursue better broadband infrastructure in the areas identified as underserved. Residents are encouraged to complete speed tests at home and at work.

“Access to broadband is vital for economic success. This is an infrastructure issue that has been affecting underserved areas in both urban and rural communities for too long now. It’s time to get in the game!” said Jason Fields, MadREP president and CEO.
MadREP’s Broadband Speed Test initiative is an end-result of reviewing broadband grant opportunities that became available to communities in the last two years. “We want to help bridge the gap between those communities that have reliable broadband and those that do not. The first step to doing that is to map connection speeds throughout our eight-county region,” said Gene Dalhoff, MadREP vice president of talent & education.

“The more data collected on the actual speeds across the county the more proof for funding assistance to improve access,” said Cheryl Fahrner, executive director, CCEDC.

Article originally published on 

Brava Magazine | 2012-2021 Women To Watch: Where Are They Now

Check out MadREP Board Treasurer Julia Arata-Fratta in Brava Magazine’s piece catching up with their last decade of “Women to Watch.” Brava Julia!



What she was doing then: As the president of the board of directors for the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Arata-Fratta was working to bolster new and existing Latin-run businesses.
What she’s up to now: In 2015, Arata-Fratta left the Latino Chamber and was elected to the Fitchburg City Council, where she is currently serving her fourth term as District 2 alder. In 2020, she became president of the council. (Her day job is with Wegner CPAs.) She is also the board treasurer for the Overture Foundation and the Madison Region Economic Partnership.
What are you most proud of? “I am very proud of being the first Latina to be elected in the City of Fitchburg and of my public service commitment to Fitchburg residents,” says Arata-Fratta.

Cap Times: The parent trap: Making child care cheaper could help fix labor woes

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The Cap Times | Natalie Yahr

Ashlee Xiong was six months pregnant when she turned in her last assignment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning her a bachelor’s degree in social welfare.

It was August 2020, and Xiong had already taken care of the ceremonial part of graduation, having walked across the stage to the cheers of a packed Camp Randall stadium the year before.

Now her thoughts were on her budding career. She’d just accepted a full-time job as a parent educator at nonprofit Family Services Madison, a position she hoped would help her decide whether to get a master’s degree in social work.

But soon after giving birth in December 2020, Xiong found herself in another career-shaping role: that of a parent whose paycheck barely exceeded the cost of child care.

Xiong isn’t alone. In Wisconsin, the average cost of infant care is 18.5% of median family income — more than average rent or in-state university tuition. In Dane County, the cost averages $16,000 a year.

Some parents run the numbers and decide working just isn’t worth it.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s longstanding labor shortages are only getting worse, as the pandemic puts new strain on a state where the birth rate and net migration have been declining for decades.

Economists say Wisconsin will need a variety of answers to its labor challenges, including attracting workers to move to the state, growing the birth rate, and drawing people off the sidelines of the workforce. One way to do that: Make child care cheaper. It’s an idea gaining support from Wisconsin business owners, child care providers and economic development experts alike. Whether it’s through federal legislation, changes to state subsidy programs or employers taking matters into their own hands, they say, fixing child care is key to strengthening Wisconsin’s economy.

Math problems

Xiong planned for eight weeks of maternity leave. Her job was already remote thanks to the pandemic, so as she prepared to return, she figured she might be able to work and care for her daughter Audrey at the same time.

For weeks, she tried scheduling appointments with clients around her daughter’s naps, hoping to be a mom and an employee simultaneously.

“It was a never-ending multitasking job,” Xiong said.

It wasn’t long before she and her partner, a self-employed landscaper, discussed whether she should quit. Xiong never imagined herself as a stay-at-home parent, but when she researched child care centers, she discovered they charged nearly as much as her monthly take-home pay.

“Either way, I felt like it would be a loss. If I continued with my job, I felt like I was going to drive myself to exhaustion. And if I did send her to daycare, most of my income would be towards daycare anyways,” Xiong said.

Wisconsin offers subsidies for child care costs through its Wisconsin Shares program, but Xiong doesn’t know whether she would qualify. She’d previously applied for FoodShare, the state food assistance program and been denied. A family of three would need to make less than $42,606 a year to qualify.

About two months after returning from maternity leave, Xiong quit.

Emilie Amundson, secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, knows firsthand that the math doesn’t always work out for working parents. Each year after her children were born, she and her husband, a teacher, would crunch the numbers to figure out whether it made sense for him to work that school year.

One year, when her youngest was 1 and her oldest was 3, it didn’t. “His entire paycheck would have gone to pay for child care,” Amundson said. “So he dropped out of the workforce for that year.”

Meanwhile, the people paid to care for children are barely getting by: The average early childhood education teacher in Wisconsin makes just $10 to $13 an hour.

Child care centers’ margins are tight in part because state regulations limit the number of small children an adult can supervise. In Wisconsin, child care providers must have one adult for every four children under age 2, while some states require one adult for every three babies. That means spots, especially for infants and toddlers, are scarce – and dwindling each time a provider shuts its doors. Shift workers who need child care outside of the 9 to 5 workday have yet fewer options.

For parents, it’s a dual challenge, said Amundson, who put her name on waitlists at infant care centers before she told some of her closest friends she was pregnant.

“You have to fight tooth and nail to pay double your mortgage for a spot in a child care center because there are so few of them.”

‘A textbook example of a broken market’

The pandemic has amplified those factors, as providers have cut capacity to allow more social distancing or to compensate for employees who’ve left, making slots scarcer and stretching tight budgets even further. Now, Amundson thinks, the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves.

In September, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin called child care “a textbook example of a broken market.”

“The price does not account for all the positive things it confers on our society,” Yellin said, noting that children who receive quality child care stay in school longer and get higher-paying jobs. Studies have found that each dollar invested in high-quality child care programs yields between $7 and $17 in net benefits to society. A 2019 report by the Council for a Strong America found that insufficient child care is costing families $37 billion a year and costing employers $13 billion a year.

“When we underinvest in child care, we forego that; we give up a happier, healthier, more prosperous labor force in the future,” Yellin said.

Last year, as federal lawmakers proposed major investments in infrastructure and social programs, it looked like the U.S. might be on the brink of a major child care overhaul. In his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill, President Joe Biden proposed spending $390 million to reduce the cost of care for many families, let every child attend preschool for free, and require that child care workers earn a “living wage.” It was a plan that could save families billions, proponents said.

But the proposal has been stalled in Congress for months as Democrats try to convince the most conservative members of their party to sign on. Last week, Biden said he believes he can win enough support for some components — including some early childhood education measures — if they’re repackaged as separate bills. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the key Democratic holdout who broke off negotiations in December, has previously backed universal pre-K. He told reporters Saturday that he’d return to the table. “We’ll just be starting from scratch,” he said.

Women missing from labor force

Women’s labor force participation leveled off in the 1990s and has been declining since the turn of the century, a trend economists think may be tied to the rising costs and declining supply of child care. As the pandemic upended lives — closing businesses, schools and daycares — data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women’s labor force participation dropped to levels not seen since the 1980s, and it largely hasn’t recovered.

To Tessa Conroy, an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison, that makes child care not so much a women’s issue or family issue as an economic development issue.

She said it’s hard to say exactly how many parents might be sitting out the job market because of child care challenges, so she looks at a number she can measure: how many more women would be working if women and men participated in the workforce at the same rate.

By her calculations, somewhere around 100,000 Wisconsin women were “potentially missing from the labor force” in 2020. “We can’t assume that all of them are missing because of child care,” she said, but “we’re talking about a pretty big pool of people … that we might be able to access through more readily available and affordable child care.”

In many other countries — including France, Belgium and Canada — the government covers or shares in the cost of caring for children before they reach school age.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. was poised to enact a similar plan. The Comprehensive Child Development Act, passed by Congress in 1971, would have created publicly funded child development centers across the country for 3- and 4-year-olds. The proposed centers would offer free care for the poorest families, while middle- and upper-class families would pay on a sliding scale based on their income.

The bill had strong bipartisan support. But President Richard Nixon, despite having declared early childhood education a top priority, vetoed it following pressure from conservatives who called the bill communist. In a statement explaining his veto, he argued for a “family-centered approach.”

“The Federal Government’s role wherever possible should be one of assisting parents to purchase needed day care services in the private, open market, with Federal involvement in direct provision of such services kept to an absolute minimum,” Nixon wrote.

That’s left U.S. parents footing the bill for care costs until children turn 5, as well as for after-school and summer care, unless they qualify for state subsidies or live in a school district that offers universal 4-year-old kindergarten. And that bill has skyrocketed, rising nearly 50% in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1993 and 2018 alone.

Meanwhile, the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime has been dropping for nearly 15 years. The country’s fertility rate hit record lows in 2018, 2019 and 2020, falling well below the rate needed to replace the country’s population. In a 2021 Pew Research Center poll of childless adults aged 18 to 49, 44% said they were not likely to have kids, with financial factors among the most common reasons cited.

Economists debate how important it is for a country to maintain replacement-level fertility, but they agree that a shrinking population can put added pressure on future generations of workers, create a smaller tax base and leave older generations short of workers to provide the care they need as they age.

“It’s only going to get worse, in terms of worker shortage. We don’t have to guess this. Our demographics are clear,” said Gene Dalhoff, vice president of talent and education for the Madison Region Economic Partnership.

Those who work in the child care sector have been sounding their own alarm for years, said Amundson of the Department of Children and Families, noting that “razor thin margins” have forced providers out of the industry at an alarming rate. The state lost more than 16,000 child care slots between 2011 and 2020, and Amundson said half of Wisconsin’s zip codes are considered “child care deserts” without enough slots for the children born.

It’ll take a major investment to save child care from becoming “a dying industry,” she said, and she thinks the Build Back Better plan shows that federal policymakers are finally on board.

“The inclusion of child care as a kind of Main Street infrastructure, critical puzzle piece – that’s brand new, I would say, and that is so exciting.”

Aid can be hard to get, keep

Through the Wisconsin Shares program, families making up to 185% of the federal poverty level can apply for government subsidies for child care. Around 17,000 families are currently enrolled in the program, but the Department of Children and Families believes far more families are eligible.

The agency raised monthly subsidy amounts last January by an average of $190, a move it anticipates will encourage more families to apply. It says the new levels will let families afford care at 80% of child care facilities, up from 35%. It’s also trying to encourage more providers to begin accepting the subsidy.

Recipients pay copays based on their income. A family with two kids in full-time care could pay anywhere from $50 per month to $500 or more. And some parents say it can be hard to meet the requirements. Parents must show proof that they’re working, in school, have a job offer or are participating in another approved activity. But some parents say it can be hard to secure a job or enroll in school without first having someone to watch their kids. Once they qualify, many find themselves scrambling to get their applications approved before the first day of work or school.

policy proposal currently before the state’s Joint Finance Committee could ease that transition. If approved, the agency would spend nearly $30 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over two years to pilot an alternative child care subsidy that parents who already receive public benefits could apply for with minimal extra paperwork.

In addition to trying to smooth the onramp to child care assistance, the department has worked to improve the offramp. Traditionally, parents would abruptly lose child care subsidies when their income rose above program limits. That’s one example of what’s often called the “benefits cliff,” the sharp drop off in government assistance that comes as people begin to climb the ladder out of poverty.

It’s like “a rug being snatched from beneath your feet, causing you to tumble to the ground,” said Bianca Shaw, now director of the Office of Urban Development at the Department of Children and Families, who fell off the cliff several years ago. As she moved from living in a Milwaukee domestic violence shelter to working in a hospital and then as a legislative staffer, she watched as the safety net fell away. First she lost Medicaid coverage, then food stamps, and then, around the time her wages passed $17 an hour, the child care subsidy that paid for her daughter Olivia’s child care at the YMCA’s Northwest Early Childhood Education Center.

“That was the most detrimental because (it) was going to this place that essentially helps me raise my daughter,” Shaw said.

In 2018, Shaw recounted the experience in testimony before the Wisconsin Legislature, which was considering a variety of changes to the state’s welfare laws. “I thought I was getting somewhere when I obtained a job that paid well above minimum wage,” she said.

But her new income – a take-home pay of $2,100 per month – put her $374 over the limit for child care assistance. To keep Olivia in daycare, she’d have to pay $1,100 per month out of pocket, $400 more than her rent. The only option, she decided, was to give up her car to save on car payments and insurance.

“So that supposedly ‘good’ job I got meant that I put myself in a position of having to choose between reliable transportation and quality child care,” Shaw testified.

Today, due to a 2017 rules change, enrolled parents can remain in the program as their incomes grow. Once a family’s income exceeds 200% of the federal poverty level – $46,060 a month for a family of three – its subsidy drops by $1 for every additional $3 in monthly income until the family is making 85% of the area median income. It’s part of an ongoing effort to allow recipients to “embrace” promotions and better jobs “without fear of that benefit just shutting off like an on-off switch,” Amundson said.

Meanwhile, some providers are making it their job to help families navigate the aid system – or even offer scholarships of their own. In November, after four decades of running after-school and summer programs in Dane and Waukesha counties, the Wisconsin Youth Company hired its first family outreach coordinator, a full-time employee tasked with helping families qualify for assistance.

“We knew that there was a need, but we know that there are a lot of barriers for families applying,” said executive director Rebecca Carlin.

The other worker shortage: child care teachers

It’s impossible to talk about child care and worker shortages without talking about the worker shortages plaguing the child care sector itself.

Shirmiel and Jimmie Duncan opened Journey Together Child Care in Madison’s Allied Drive neighborhood in 2018, inspired by their own struggle to find quality, affordable child care for their six children.

“If we can provide that support to other families, maybe they wouldn’t have to go through what we went through,” Shirmiel said.

They currently have four employees who care for around 21 children, and they’re looking to add more than a dozen teachers to their pool. They raised the starting wage to $15 to $17 per hour and offer dental and vision benefits, with health insurance in the works. Still, they say, it’s hard to draw applicants.

“We are getting people trying to place their kids in here, but we’re struggling because we don’t have enough teachers to fill these positions. So we’ve had to turn parents away or put them on a waiting list,” Jimmie said.

At Yahara River Learning Center in DeForest, owner Macy Buhler is facing a similar hiring challenge. She thinks her teachers deserve far more than the $16 to $17 an hour she offers. But while her expenses dropped by about $5,000 a month when she bought her 7,400-square-foot building, mortgage payments and her 20-person payroll still keep the margins tight. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be making 40 grand plus a year, but I can’t afford that and parents can’t afford that … The biggest growth period of a brain is birth to age 6, and we pay those teachers the least,” Buhler said, noting that the average early childhood educator makes less than a third of the salary of a college professor and around half the pay of a school teacher.

“We’re never, ever going to get over our staffing crisis when my staff can go work and make more at Kwik Trip or Target or Walmart.”

It’s not just the staff who are underpaid. Buhler’s own family relies on her husband’s income to pay the bills. She’s paid from the business’ profits and doesn’t draw a salary. 2021 was the first year in her five years of operation that she took home more than $11,000.

Family child care center owner Corrine Hendrickson isn’t doing much better. She opened Corrine’s Little Explorers in her New Glarus home in 2007 as her own solution to the child care shortage. She had a 10-month-old son, a degree in education, a job as a retail manager at Bath & Body Works, and three pregnant friends who couldn’t find infant care.

“I said, ‘Well, if I quit my job and use my degree, would you come to me?’” Hendrickson recalled.

Today she cares for up to eight children at a time, and she’s built an addition so she’s not climbing over playpens in her living room. But though the overhead costs of her one-woman operation are lower than those of many facilities, by her calculations, she makes just $8 an hour.

Raising rates would mean losing families, she said, explaining that providers set prices based on what they think families can afford.

“No other business model does that,” Hendrickson said. “You would take that plan into a bank and ask for a loan and they would laugh you right out of the office.”

Hendrickson knows multiple veteran child care providers who are on their “last batch” of kids before getting out of the business, and she understands why. The usual strains have combined with the special challenges of the pandemic: She’s become a licensed COVID tester in order to carry out a weekly regimen of rapid testing known to her young charges as “Booger Day,” and Hendrickson herself finally caught COVID around Christmas, shutting down the center for weeks.

“Child care programs are being run by this incredible, resilient group of women who are willing to keep losing out because they want to provide this amazing service to their communities and to the families that they’ve supported for so long. And as a country, we take advantage of that,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.

“What you’ve seen is this breaking point, this tipping point that child care is at: We’ve done this as long as we can do it this way.”

Could Madison fix the child care market?

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, thinks of the local economy as a tent that can’t stand up without all of its poles, the major industries like health care, technology and government. But when the pandemic hit, his eyes shot to a different piece of the tent, one that holds the others together.

“There might be a little tie at the top that you just forget about, (until) a gust of wind blows the whole thing over,” Brandon said. That tie is child care, something most people don’t think about unless they’re currently using it, he said. He sees the pandemic as that first gust of wind, presenting both a warning and an opportunity.

Back in March 2020, he and his colleagues started to wonder whether the Madison area could manage to hold onto its child care slots as the pandemic began to shut things down. What would happen if providers closed for good?

“Restarting an economy is going to need to start with child care,” Brandon said.

So when Dane County Executive Joe Parisi asked the Chamber how the county should spend a limited amount of county funds – prior to the infusion of federal pandemic relief dollars – Brandon’s answer was simple: child care. Parisi put $3.5 million into a fund designed to stabilize the child care industry by offsetting providers’ losses.

The issue would come up again in fall of 2021, when the Chamber convened three focus groups to discuss what was causing the ongoing labor shortages. One group was made up of economists and demographers, another of industry leaders, and one of workers and potential workers, including those earning low wages.

“There was only one common thread across all three, and that was child care,” Brandon said.

Today, the Chamber is bringing together members of all those groups to devise immediate solutions to the child care dilemma. They’re mulling ideas like whether businesses with brick-and-mortar locations can offer unneeded space for child care centers, allowing providers to avoid one of their biggest costs besides payroll: rent.

But Brandon thinks a long-term fix will require something bigger: admitting that “the model is broken.”

“This is not just an acute problem – this is a chronic problem,” Brandon said. He thinks the proposals in Biden’s Build Back Better plan would be a key step, but he’d also like to see local leaders in business and government work together to improve the system further, including by drawing more people into careers in child care.

“There’s certainly the potential that this region could become an example of how you fix the market failure, and that should help us recruit and retain talent.”

Wisconsin employers seek solutions

Every month, Forward Service Corporation holds a graduation for its four- to six-week training programs designed to prepare participants for jobs in call centers, logistics or office administration. Every month, at least a few graduates say that they won’t be entering their new field yet because they can’t find child care.

“That’s a particularly hard, emotional thing for me,” operations director Brian Covey said. “They are very excited to start their career, they’ve attained the skills, but they can’t start because child care is holding them back.”

Traditionally, employers have played only a limited role in helping their workers find or pay for child care. Many offer workers the option to pay into flexible spending accounts, saving pre-tax dollars for child care as they would for medical expenses. American Family Insurance told the Cap Times it’s negotiated a lower rate for its employees at some local child care centers. Some allow employees to set work schedules to fit their child care responsibilities, and some subscribe to services that help employees search for providers.

Madison-based biotech company Promega went a step further in 1991, sponsoring the creation of the nonprofit Woods Hollow Children’s Center on the company’s Fitchburg campus. Promega employees get priority when slots open up at the 150-child center, though they pay the same rate as non-employees, around $2,000 per month for infants and $1,500 to $1,900 per month for older children. Though the nonprofit is not part of Promega, the company provides additional funding when needed to keep up the center’s cash flow, and staff provide expertise by serving on the nonprofit’s board.

The company advertises Woods Hollow in its job listings, and applicants often call the center to inquire about availability while they’re still interviewing. But human resources director Gayle Paul said Promega thinks of Woods Hollow as an asset not just to its employees but to the community. “If employers are looking for ways to both benefit their teams and give back to the community, this is a great way to do it: to build a relationship with a center and to provide some support.”

Now, as companies struggle to find and retain workers, other business leaders are considering what role they ought to play in solving child care challenges. So too are labor unions: Plumbers Union Local 75 wants to build a child care center inside its forthcoming Madison training center in a former east side Menards.

In October, Sachin Shivaram, CEO of Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry in Manitowoc, penned an op-ed on the “complexity and gravity of the childcare conundrum.” Shivaram told the story of one employee, a single dad who drops his 3-year-old daughter at a different friend’s home each night so that he can work the night shift.

“Without a childcare solution, we have no hope for resolving the national labor shortage,” Shivaram wrote. His company now reimburses employees $400 a month for child care, and they’ve begun planning to open their own child care center. The company plans to charge employees just $100 a week, but care would cost the company $40,000 per child each year, Shivaram said.

That, he wrote, is why he backs Biden’s Build Back Better plan. “As a businessperson with a distaste for higher taxes, I would rather see a private-sector solution. But I recognize that piecemeal initiatives like what our company is doing will not get us there.”

In Madison, Patrick DePula is lobbying for Biden’s plan too. The restaurateur behind Salvatore’s Tomato Pies still thinks back on 2011, when he and his wife opened their first pizzeria in Sun Prairie. Their oldest child was 3 and their youngest just 3 weeks, and their only viable child care was 45 miles away – at DePula’s parents’ house in Janesville.

“We spent four hours a day driving back and forth to Janesville … because there was no possible way we would have been able to afford child care while working in a restaurant.”

Today, he sees his employees facing the same sorts of challenges, which keeps them from taking on additional hours and makes it hard for his managers to schedule consistent shifts. Servers at his downtown Madison location make $7.25 an hour plus tips – more than three times the $2.33 state minimum for tipped workers – and receive benefits, but he said small businesses like his can’t offer adequate child care benefits without government help.

He thinks business owners in the hospitality industry should push for child care changes, which he believes will help stabilize an often-unstable line of work and “really give our industry hope for the future.”

Child care is now part of the cost of doing business, said Gene Dalhoff of the Madison Region Economic Partnership. “We can’t point to child care and say, ‘That’s somebody else’s issue,’” Dalhoff said. “If (businesses) want to be fully staffed, they need to expand (benefits) beyond what they’re used to thinking about.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families is trying to mobilize concerned employers. In February, the agency will launch Project Growth, a $20-million initiative designed to grow “innovative partnerships” between businesses and child care providers. The program follows the Partner Up grant program, which has awarded $10 million in grants to employers who purchased child care slots for essential workers.

Amundson is hopeful. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from chambers of commerce and affiliated business groups who say, ‘We have a stake in solving this problem.’”

Parents weigh work options

In December, Ashlee Xiong hung decorations around her Sun Prairie home, and she cut cake to celebrate her daughter’s first birthday.

Now, as Xiong nears the end of her first year as a stay-at-home parent, she’s still not sure when she might rejoin the workforce.

One thing she’s sure of: Until something changes, she’s not ready to have more kids.

“Considering how much it is just for one child now, I think adding a second one to the mix would definitely bring up costs. And I don’t think my partner and I are in a position where we’re financially ready for that, and also mentally and emotionally ready for that.”

For now, she’s reflecting on life as a stay-at-home mom and trying to find her own identity, outside of being a parent.

Before having a baby, she didn’t base her career goals on a salary. But now, to shoulder the cost of child care on top of her student loan debt, she knows she’d need to choose a job where she makes significantly more than she did before.

It’s just what parents do, she said. “Ultimately, you just want what’s best for your children. So I think, at the end of the day, you just have to do the job in order to afford what you can in life and get by.”

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