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Child Care Woes and Waitlists Continue for Capitol Hill Parents

Even with expanding facilities, demand continues to grow among staff

A new study on child care options for children of Capitol Hill staff shows that many kids face long waitlists. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A new study on child care options for children of Capitol Hill staff shows that many kids face long waitlists. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A new study about child care on Capitol Hill calls the existing options for legislative branch staff “woefully inadequate to meet demand” and says child care challenges could be a factor in pushing Hill staffers to leave.

The House, Senate, Library of Congress, and Government Accountability Office have affiliated day care services, each within walking distance of the Capitol and the larger congressional office buildings. But there are many more congressional kids than seats at the pint-sized tables.

“For the young, overworked, and underpaid congressional staff, Congress must do more to address child care if it wants to retain capable staff,” writes Amelia Strauss, the author of the study by advocacy group Demand Progress.

The waitlist for the 70 seats in the House Child Care Center has reached over 200 in recent years. The House day care is desirable because it is located in the Ford Building, just steps away from congressional offices, and costs much less than private day care — around $1,000 to $1,400 a month.

The facility is in the midst of moving to the East O’Neill Building, said Dan Weiser, spokesman for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. New and returning children will be in the new space beginning January 2019, when capacity will more than double from 70 to 160.

And there’s more expansion to come, with capacity eventually growing to 232 children once construction and expansion-related operations at the O’Neill Building are completed.

The fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill provided $12 million for the second phase of the House Child Care Center expansion. House leadership, oversight committees, and the Office of the CAO have made the expansion a priority, Weiser said. 

The Senate daycare’s capacity is 68 children and the waitlist is similar to the House, more than 200. 

The waitlist problem peaks early — slots for infants are the hardest to come by. Child care programs on Capitol Hill have spots for children ranging from a few months old up to five years. According to the study, almost half of the families on waitlists have a child one year or younger who needs care.

“We have nine infant slots for the entirety of the Senate and their staff. And, as we want to become a more attractive workplace for very busy parents, we’ve got to keep up with the increasing demand for child care,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said earlier this year.

The fiscal 2019 Legislative Branch appropriations bill called for a working group to review operations at the Senate Employees Child Care Center. The group, made up of representatives from the Architect of the Capitol and the sergeant-at-arms, is getting input from SECCC board members and the executive director, and examining the facility’s operating costs and personnel processes. The review also calls for the Architect of the Capitol to evaluate options for expanding the physical capacity of the SECCC.

Both the House and Senate facilities give sibling preference, which allows siblings of enrolled children to jump to the top of the list. That means first-time parents on Capitol Hill can be leapfrogged while on the infant waitlist by colleagues who already have a child in the program.

If parents leave the federal government, they have to take their child with them — day care is only available to federal employees. A parent who switches from the House to another agency or the Senate can keep their child enrolled.

Child care is just one of an array of issues that impact quality of life and work-life balance for Capitol Hill staff, said Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress. He said expanding child care availability is a good step, but variable family leave policies should also be addressed.

Congressional rules do not require House or Senate offices to offer paid maternity or paternity leave to staffers. While the Office of Compliance requires lawmakers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, policies for any paid maternity or paternity leave vary by office.

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