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 an excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

How did the idea for Tri-Share originate?

It started with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. A few years before the pandemic shut us down, a group of community leaders, business owners, and a state representative came together and started talking about the issue of child care. Employers 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 that we have, the representative introduced legislation to fund the pilot, and we launched the Tri-Share pilot program in March 2021.

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.

What was the advantage of bringing 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. It’s almost like employers needed a public partner in order to get in the business of helping with child care at all.

Employers now 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.

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.

When the public sector gets involved, we can alleviate some of the administrative burden for both employers and child-care providers. Under Tri-Share, it’s on one of our 13 regional 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.

What has the impact of the program been like so far?

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%.

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.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including more on employers’ response to Tri-Share and the relationship between economic development and child care.

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