Situated at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, surrounded by old country stores and taffy shops, is a theme park that, for the staff who work there, operates like a self-contained community.
Dollywood Parks and Resorts is a destination for families — “guests,” as they are better known by staff — to play, celebrate and be charmed by the Southern hospitality that the park’s namesake, entertainer and icon Dolly Parton, grew up on and has come to embody.
But someone has to do all that charming, and not everyone has the magic touch, explains Tim Berry, vice president of human resources for the Dollywood Company. To attract the very best “hosts,” as resort staff are called, the company must be a great place to work, with excellent benefits and an environment where people feel comfortable and supported bringing their full selves.
“We have to be more to them than just a job,” Berry says, noting that the Dollywood Company views its staff as its “differentiator.”
For years, Dollywood has been building out a suite of benefits for its employees, which includes an on-site family health center, a park chaplain, and full tuition coverage for anyone interested in furthering their education through the company’s partner program GROW U.
Those offerings have also, in recent years, expanded to include child care benefits.
During the pandemic, company officials began hearing of the heightened challenges employees were facing finding child care. Many noted in employee surveys that the child care programs in their area were full, and it was impeding their ability to work. (Nationwide, an estimated 16,000 child care programs closed permanently in the first two years of the pandemic, representing a loss of about 9 percent of all licensed programs in the U.S.)
“Child care was one of those aspects of life that we know people have a need for, and we needed to figure out a way to address,” explains Berry.
The company had considered offering a child care benefit for its hosts in the past, including an on-site child care center where they could drop off their kids at the start of their shift and pick them up at the end. But the Dollywood Company has a headcount of about 3,800, and not all of those employees are workin’ 9 to 5.
Though some staff, such as those in marketing and accounting roles, work traditional business hours, many who work in guest services and support park operations are working on weekends, in the evenings and over holidays.
“Our need for child care [runs the] full gamut,” Berry says, “from traditional hours to odd, customized, unique needs for when people work.”
To make an on-site child care program available to all staff, Berry adds, the company would have to operate it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That wasn’t feasible or practical.
Instead, as the need for a child care solution became greater, Dollywood found an alternative option in WeeCare, a network of child care providers.
In summer 2021, Dollywood announced a partnership with WeeCare, describing it as an “unparalleled child care benefit for hosts working at the Smoky Mountains theme park.” WeeCare’s charge is to match Dollywood employees in need of child care with one of the providers in its vast network, which CEO Jessica Chang says includes more than 65,000 child care professionals, about 6,000 of which are licensed in-home providers. To boot, the Dollywood Company provides employees a monthly stipend toward the cost of care: $100 for each employee’s first child and $50 for every additional child.
That monthly contribution likely covers somewhere around 10 to 15 percent of Dollywood employees’ child care costs. In other parts of the country, though, it wouldn’t go nearly as far.
In Sevier County, Tennessee, where Dollywood is located, the median cost for infant care is between $650 and $900 per month, according to 2022 estimates found in the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Database of Child Care Prices. Toddler care, which tends to be slightly less expensive, ranges from $590 to $715 per month in the area. The average monthly cost for a WeeCare provider in Tennessee, the company says, is between $650 and $700.
Just shy of two years in, Berry says the uptake of the program has been slow but is growing.
Last year, staff retention for the Dollywood Company increased by 11 percent. Berry can’t say for sure whether that’s from the child care benefit — the company is constantly making changes to nudge up that rate — but he acknowledges it’s a significant improvement.
“It’s a real need,” Berry says, “and we’re going to do our best to keep it going, and hopefully other businesses will do the same.”
In fact, a number of other businesses are doing the same.
On the heels of the pandemic, which increased awareness among the American public about how difficult it is for families to find and afford child care and how essential the procurement of that child care is to business operations and growth, many companies are exploring their options, wondering how they could help their staff with child care in exchange for — the hope goes — less attrition and more focused, satisfied, productive employees.
That slow, organic trend accelerated earlier this year. In February, about six months after the CHIPS and Science Act was passed to strengthen research and manufacturing of semiconductors and other technologies in the U.S., the Biden administration announced it would be requiring recipients of the $39 billion in federal subsidies from CHIPS to offer child care to all employees. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, semiconductor manufacturers applying for more than $150 million in federal funding must submit plans for providing care that is “affordable, accessible, reliable and high quality.”
The announcement was met with fierce rebuke and animated praise alike.
Some see it as wrongheaded — a distraction from the real goal of getting the U.S. to treat and fund early care and education like a public good, in much the same way K-12 is.
“If you leave it to employers to essentially figure out child care for their employees, I think that’s not going to get us where we want to be as a country,” says Laura Bornfreund, senior fellow and advisor on early and elementary education with the Education Policy program at New America, a Washington-based think tank.
“I see the appeal of this as a short-term way to expand offerings for families,” Bornfreund adds, “but to me, it could take us down what I see as the wrong path for a long-term fix, becoming more of an employer-led benefit than the public investment we need.”
For others, it’s a clever workaround by an administration that saw its priorities for child care and preschool access largely left on the cutting room floor during congressional talks in 2021. And even if it’s not “the” solution, it’s “a” solution to the crisis that continues to escalate in the early care and education sector.
“At the end of the day, through something like the CHIPS announcement, we have more employers who are going to care even more about child care,” notes Anne Hedgepeth, chief of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit that promotes quality, accessible child care. “Momentum there is really important. Employers who have to experience and navigate the challenges of child care become employers who want to see a better system.”
When it comes to employer involvement in child care, the devil is in the details. Interviews with a dozen early care and education providers, policy experts, advocates and employers reveal just how complex and contentious this issue is.
The reality is there are a number of existing and emerging models for employer participation in child care, each with varying degrees of success and scalability.
What’s clear, though, is that workplace child care benefits aren’t some abstract idea being floated by businesses or the U.S. government for some far-off future. They’re already here, and employees are already taking advantage of them.
When most people hear “employer-sponsored child care,” as this benefit is best known, they are likely thinking of on-site child care. In this model, programs are established in the places where employees work — in an office building or other co-located premises — and often in partnership with an outside child care provider or network, such as Bright Horizons or KinderCare.