Child care, and all the ways child care affects the long-term health and well-being of a community, served as the central focus for a roundtable discussion hosted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 4.

The topic of child care goes far beyond just nannies and nap times, Klobuchar said. To the contrary, the issue is so intrinsic to other societal concerns like job growth, mental health, the living wage and others, that it should be examined not just in a personal sense. Instead, it's important to keep the overarching economics in mind.

"It's about the economy, it's really important to talk about it in that way," Klobuchar said. "It's about making it easier for individual families and workers, but it is also about having a strong economy. It's impossible to have a strong economy when it's too expensive to work because of child care."

While the discussion was far-ranging and varied in scope, two subjects presented themselves as central issues—first, the fact that a lack of accessible child car stands as the primary obstacle for employment in central Minnesota; second, that government aid, whether local, state or federal, is needed to help Minnesota families, caregivers and employers to achieve a sustainable balance between child care and the needs of the private sector.

The roundtable gathered Klobuchar and members of her staff, along with local county and city officials, as well as representatives from a number of organizations—which included Stepping Stones Child Care, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation, Brainerd Family YMCA, Consolidated Telecommunications Company, Madden's Resort, Thrivent Financial, Essentia Health, the Initiative Foundation, among others.

"There are a lot of opportunities because of the level of interest, on both sides of the aisle, with the issue of child care. ... There is just a lot of interest in it, I know, in the state as well." Klobuchar said, adding she had met with President Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, recently to explore the topic. "As a mom, of course, I know what that's like to be looking for child care. It was really important part for us to get child care. It's so much harder to get it now."

Klobuchar identified child care as a central point in the larger conversation of city growth in Minnesota—both an opportunity and a challenge, she said, because there's an increasing number of people interested in moving from the Twin Cities metro area into greater Minnesota, while it's harder to meet their child care needs in an economy not conducive to industry growth.

Klobuchar said she's currently working on a bill that would provide federal grants for the stated purpose of creating new child care providers—propping up, in part, outfitting and construction costs, training, certification and other aspects of the startup process that often falter without outside aid.

Highlights of the roundtable discussion pointed to a number of weaknesses in the child care industry, as well as areas of potential:

• At multiple points, attendees observed that there's a high degree of turnover in the child care industry—whether that's because of limited visas for foreign caretakers, low wages (more than 85 percent make less than $20,000 per year), a lack of funding for pre-kindergarten care (both family and center-based), the scalable nature of the business, or the certification process,

• Don Hinkman, of the Initiative Foundation, said that by offering forgivable loans that delayed payments on the basis of new slot creation, the Initiative Foundation in Fergus Falls were able to create an "awful lot" of slots,

• Multiple specialists in workforce development identified child care as a primary concern for both employers and prospective employees in central Minnesota—while Little Falls and Brainerd city administrators Joe Radermacher and Cassandra Torstenson provided personal anecdotes of their own struggles to find suitable care for their children,

• Multiple attendees said there are societal pressures to avoid the conversation of child care in the workplace. Radermacher said employers often don't understand the challenges employees are facing to care for their children because employees are afraid to speak up or come across as demanding. On the other hand, Brainerd Mayor Ed Mank said some businesses are actively avoiding candidates of "child-bearing age" to eliminate the hassle of paying for maternity/paternity leave or extend child care benefits. Either way, the issue is a "risky proposition" for both,

• There is a significant shortage—and an almost total dearth in the Brainerd lakes area—of non-traditional work hour child care providers for workers with unpredictable schedules and long hours, or employees with third-shift jobs,

• Immigrant caretakers, or au pairs, are good candidates to accommodate these atypical hours, Torstenson said. Klobuchar added that reforming the work visa process would promote a beneficial and sustainable form of legal immigration, as well as serve as a boon for the economy,

• Costs, without outside aid to push both families and child care providers over the hump, poses as a problem. On one side, individuals may lose state or federal aid if they attain a certain level of income, which is still unsustainable. On the other hand, expanding the size of a child care provider typically requires a rate hike, which is a difficult proposition with a price-sensitive clientele,

• Greater Minnesota has had a net loss of 15,000 child care spaces over the last 10 years, despite steady economic improvement over that time frame.

• Crow Wing County spends more than $1 million into federal and state grants every year to supplement family child care needs, with 323 cases currently open—although, it was noted, there is no waiting list and the county is underspending. The average monthly reimbursement per family is $430-$520 per month, while the average cost per child a week is roughly $150-$160 a week. During the Feb. 28 Gordon Rosenmeier Forum, panelists noted day care for a typical family costs about $460 per month, though this represents a conservative estimate.

• Attendees noted that finding suitable care for children with special need poses a significant challenge for both parents and child care providers—especially with the number of these cases growing by the year.

• In Morrison County, for many years the average was about 110 care providers, until last June when that number decreased by 20. Possible reasons for this drop is the implementation of federal mandates at that time—which may ultimately include fingerprinting, unplanned visits by monitors and other unpopular changes.