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N.S. hopes daycare will be key to keeping health-care system running

It’s suppertime at Health Park Early Learning Centre in Sydney, N.S., and six children are nibbling away on grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup.

Sarah Chow sits at a tiny table beside her 15-month-old daughter Mira, spending a few minutes together before leaving for work. 

“She actually settled really well. She eats here, she loves to dance to music and they even got her to sleep,” Chow said, “which was really amazing, because usually I’m the only one successful at that.”

Chow is a piano teacher who works in the evenings, and her husband is an emergency-room doctor on a rotating shift at nearby Cape Breton Regional Hospital. They’ve had a hard time making their schedules line up with Mira’s care.

“Both of our families are in Ontario, so we don’t have grandparents close by to just kind of drop off the baby occasionally,” Chow said. “The first year was really 24/7.”

So when Health Park started offering round-the-clock child care for health-care workers in January, it was a blessing for the Chows. 

Children at Health Park Early Learning Centre eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup together. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“It’s really making our stay in Cape Breton a lot more positive, and I think it will probably be long term if we have that support,” Chow said.

What’s happening at Health Park is a pilot project aimed at tackling a pressing issue: Health-care workers across the country are reporting high levels of burnout, and many say child care with flexible hours would help them stay at work. 

Whether 24/7 daycare for children of health-care workers is feasible is still an open question, but at least two provinces in Canada are trying to find out.

‘We are serious about the need’

So far the Sydney program has served 22 families — children of doctors, paramedics, and continuing care assistants. 

“I spoke with a single mom who was going back to work,” said Helen Gamble, who owns Health Park Early Learning Centre. “She had to put it off because she didn’t have child care. She was here and she was in tears, she was so happy.

“It gave her the ability to go back to work and provide for her family.”

Gamble is able to offer the service because of a recent collaboration with the Nova Scotia government. The province covers the wages when extra staff are required, food for the evening program, and a quarter of the operating costs of the daycare, such as heat and electricity. It also subsidizes half the daycare fees for parents. 

A woman with glasses stands in the hallway of a daycare.
Helen Gamble is the owner of Health Park Early Learning Centre. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“I think it just shows them that we are serious about the need we have for health-care professionals in the area, and that we want to support them,” Gamble said.

“We want to bring them here, and we want them to thrive and be happy.” 

Child care at hospital sites

It’s a concept that seems to be gaining in popularity. Last October, the Nova Scotia government held a contest to gather ideas from health-care workers on improving the system.

It received more than 2,200 submissions, which CBC News obtained through an access-to-information request. One idea, which was repeated at least 25 times, was to set up child care at hospital sites.

WATCH | Here are some health-care ideas that didn’t win a N.S. contest

Homing pigeons? Here are some health-care ideas that didn’t win a Nova Scotia contest

The Nova Scotia government’s contest to solicit ideas from the province’s health-care workers generated thousands of responses. The finalists were made public. But CBC received the list of other suggestions through access to information — and there’s everything from homing pigeons to calling in the military. Shaina Luck reports.

“I know far too many families who have quit their jobs, in health care, because of child-care shortages,” one person wrote. 

“Women make up the majority of jobs in health care. It makes sense to have child care at their employment with health-care flexible hours.” 

Many staff said they would pay out of pocket for such a service. 

“I would return full time if child care was available,” wrote one person. 

The province also recently announced a $25,000 grant for an organization trying to study child care for health-care workers in the Antigonish area. 

Quitting permanent jobs over child care

In April 2022, the Registered Nurses’ Union of Newfoundland and Labrador conducted surveys of 2,000 health-care workers. Child care emerged as one of the top issues for nurse recruitment and retention, said union president Yvette Coffey.

“If they had child care it would prevent them from resigning from their permanent position,” she said in a recent interview. 

“What they’re doing is saying, ‘I’ll work casual — I’ll work when I can get child care, family or friends, or a home daycare,’ or when their significant other is home.” 

Coffey said her union has advocated to the province for child care with flexible or extended hours. 

A woman wearing a yellow blouse with a black cardigan stands in front of a beige wall with posters on it.
Yvette Coffey is the president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland and Labrador. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

“We have mandatory extensions of shifts happening in the health-care system with our nurses,” she said. 

“They’ve got to choose between trying to find child care then at that point in time versus staying at work, or leaving work and being accused of abandoning their patient.”

In November, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey announced the province would create 160 new child-care spaces within six months, with hours that were suitable for health-care workers and an eventual goal of offering 24/7 service.

As of early April, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Education Department told CBC News the four sites were still under development and would be open by the end of the year. Officials said the number of expected spaces is now 180, but they couldn’t say how much the project would cost. 

Coffey said she believes early childhood educators are underpaid and undervalued, and shifting the burden of overnight care to ECEs needs to come with salary increases.

Boston hospital network offers 4 daycares

There are four different daycares for employees at Mass General Brigham, a large network of not-for-profit medical facilities in Boston, that does patient care, research and teaching.

They also offer emergency and backup child care both on-site and in employees’ homes.

Three children eating supper at a small table in a daycare.
Children at Health Park Early Learning Centre eating together. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

The daycare centres have been running for decades, said Matt Badger, Mass General Brigham’s senior vice-president of strategic people solutions. He said the network started adding the backup and in-home services during the pandemic. 

“It’s really about making sure that we provide a supportive infrastructure that allows our employees to come to work and focus on our mission,” he said in a recent interview. 

His organization employs about 85,000 people, most of whom qualify for benefits like the child-care programs. Badger said thousands of people use the in-home services and several hundred regularly send their children to the four daycare sites. 

Parents pay monthly daycare fees, which Badger said Mass General Brigham tries to ensure is lower than at competing child-care facilities. But he declined to say exactly how much the program costs.

A man wearing a blazer and glasses.
Matt Badger is the senior vice-president of strategic people solutions with the Mass General Brigham hospital network in Boston, Mass. (Zoom)

“It essentially comes close to paying for itself,” he said. “But right now, we do spend a couple million dollars a year on subsidization of these programs because we think they’re so important to support our workforce and their families.”

Their daycares open as early as 6:30 a.m. and close as late as 5:30 p.m. The operating hours have often been discussed, Badger said, as some employees want child care beyond those hours. 

“Our assessment is that we don’t quite have enough demands to make it work in all of our locations,” he said. “So we’ve stayed the course with that kind of schedule.”

A slower start

Back at Health Park Early Learning Centre, Gamble is trying to spread the word about the overnight program. Out of 22 families who used extended hours, only two children stayed overnight. Evenings and weekends are more popular for now. 

“The overnight, I know right now that there’s only a couple of families using it. But we are trying to go slower, and we didn’t advertise,” she said. 

Beds are set up in quiet room for children to sleep at a Sydney, N.S. daycare near the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.
Beds are set up in a quiet room for children to sleep in at Health Park, which is near the Cape Breton Regional Hospital. (Kyle Moore/CBC)

Gamble said the service isn’t profitable yet for her small business. But she thinks that will come. 

“Eventually it will, it will be viable,” she said.

The provincial government has said it plans to evaluate the program later this spring to determine if it’s working and if any adjustments should be made.

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