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An auto plant in Alabama is offering employees up to $250 per month for child care

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Child care has long been viewed as a problem for parents to solve, but increasingly, employers are realizing that they can be part of the solution, especially in sectors like manufacturing, which need workers round the clock. NPR's Andrea Hsu looks at how an auto plant in Alabama is stepping up to help.

D'KOYA MATHIS: Can you say hi?

ZHARIA: Hi.

MATHIS: Hi.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: For D'Koya Mathis and her daughter, Zharia, morning drop off at Ms. Pat's Child Care Center is short and sweet - quick temperature check at the door and then...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're good.

MATHIS: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're good.

MATHIS: Bye-bye, girl.

HSU: Mathis takes comfort knowing while she's at work, her toddler is having a ball.

MATHIS: You know, I hear from her teachers all the time. They tell me, hoo (ph), she's a character. I know.

HSU: Mathis works at the Mazda Toyota Plant outside Huntsville, Ala. It's a joint venture that makes small SUVs. When the company started recruiting workers a few years ago, they had women like her in mind. Jessica Luther in external affairs says Mathis very much represents the workforce of today.

JESSICA LUTHER: We're, like, 33% women. Median age is 29 years old. It's a very different workforce than your grandfather's or your father's manufacturing. We're talking about young families. We're talking about moms who end up working and being primary caregiver.

HSU: Just like D'Koya Mathis - she took a job on the assembly line just last year, drawn by the benefits - and one in particular - money for childcare.

MATHIS: I actually heard about it on a - it was a advertisement on a billboard.

HSU: It's something she had been seeking in a job.

MATHIS: I'm a single mom, and it's pretty expensive for the infants to come in, so I just needed a little bit extra support and help.

HSU: Which is what Mazda Toyota offers - the company will pay 30% of an employee's childcare costs up to $250 a month, which still leaves Mathis with a lot to cover on her own.

MATHIS: Roughly, on my end, $700.

HSU: A month - but she says the 250 made a big difference. In her last job, Mathis didn't have a child care benefit. She made the tough decision to send Zharia to live with her mother in Louisiana.

MATHIS: So when they offered this benefit, it was definitely great for me to go ahead and jump in.

HSU: And she made a splash. Just a few months into the job, Mathis got a promotion to the people team. Nowadays, she spends her days and nights talking to workers on the production floor, helping them with their needs, including child care.

MATHIS: I love talking to people, getting their feedback and knowing that I can help and provide resources for them. We're one of the few companies that do offer child care.

HSU: According to the labor department, only about 12% of U.S. employers offer child care assistance. Toyota has done it for decades, building on-site childcare centers at its plants in Kentucky and Indiana. But building centers on-site is costly. Keeping them open overnight is complicated, and many workers prefer to have their kids closer to home anyway. So Mazda Toyota, the joint venture, decided to offer the stipend instead. Jason Pickering is general manager of administration.

JASON PICKERING: Who are we to say what's important to your family, right? We want our team members to be able to make those decisions for themselves.

HSU: Mazda Toyota is working with a company called TOOTRiS, which both administers the stipend and helps employees find care providers - kind of like Airbnb but for child care.

PICKERING: Our hope is that it enables more people to come into the workforce. It's not free child care, so it doesn't solve all problems, but we feel like it puts them in a much better position.

HSU: As of the spring, 112 employees were receiving the child care benefit. That could rise over the summer when school's out. The company is studying the effect the benefit is having on workers. Jessica Luther says they did see a decline in attrition over the first year it was offered.

LUTHER: Overall, attrition had dropped by 11%, which was great, but it was a result of many, many different things.

HSU: Including raises. But what was interesting was that attrition among women dropped 20%. That made her think this child care benefit is doing something for moms.

LUTHER: Maybe when they hit a hard point in the job or their life, that benefit helped them push through and stay with us, you know?

HSU: Alabama recognizes that benefits like this can get more people working, and that's good for the economy. In fact, Governor Kay Ivey just signed a new child care tax credit into law. For the next three years, Alabama employers can enjoy some of the biggest tax incentives for subsidizing care anywhere in the country. Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Huntsville, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.