House staffer Michelle Vanek wasn’t even pregnant yet when she signed up for employee day care. Four years later, she got the call: her 1- and 3-year-old children could enroll.
Another aide’s three years on the waiting list started shortly after her wedding and spanned the first 16 months of her daughter’s life. She got a spot last week.
They are among dozens of staff members whose children were accepted at the House day care in recent weeks, the first beneficiaries of a much-anticipated expansion of the center that will double its capacity by the end of the year.
“I feel like I won the golden ticket,” said one mother, the wife of a committee staffer, who was buckling her son into his car seat outside the center on a recent evening. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her husband’s office policy. She waited two and a half years. Her son is 2.
The expansion project, reported to have cost $12 million, has come to symbolize what some Hill aides and outside observers hope will be a new era of investment in work-life balance for congressional staff, driven in part by a crop of younger lawmakers from both parties — some with small children of their own — with fresh perspectives on issues facing working families with young children.
“If we are going to keep the kind of talent we need to run the government, we need to have programs like this in place that can keep us competitive with the private sector,” said Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the day care program. “My goal is to make Congress a model for how we should be treating our workers and our families.”
Ryan has a 4-year-old son but has not tried to get a spot at the day care center because his family has stayed in Ohio, he said.
From the archives: Junior journalists probe House leaders on ‘Take Your Child to Work Day’
Just weeks after the new space opened steps from Capitol Hill, every family previously on the waiting list for toddlers and preschoolers had been offered a spot, said Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which provides support for House offices and their staffs. Wait times for other children — which had ballooned to over three years — had “gone down considerably,” he said.
Michael Zetts, a staff member from Ryan’s office, said 64 House families on the infant wait list had been offered spots and additional infant and toddler spots will open soon. There are 259 families still on the wait list, some of whom have been waiting as long as 17 months, although 73 of them had been offered spots that they deferred, he said.
For years, congressional aides have advised new colleagues to sign up for staff day care the minute they start to think about children and to be prepared not to get one of the coveted spots until long after the kids are done with diapers.
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 office buildings on the Hill. The programs are popular because they are steps from congressional offices and cost considerably less than private day care, at around $1,000 to $1,400 a month.
But long waits for those services, along with low pay, long working hours and a lack of standardized parental leave policies, are thought to contribute to the exodus of congressional staff members after they start to have families. Shortages of day care spaces were also cited in a recent analysis of congressional pay that found a yawning wage gap between male and female staffers.
Daniel Schuman, a policy director at the advocacy group Demand Progress, said the House day care expansion was a step in the right direction.
“This alone won’t be sufficient to help keep people in Congress, but it could help slow down the rate of what drives them out,” he said, adding that his group studied child care options for legislative branch staff in October and found them “woefully inadequate to meet demand.”
Making a difference
Staff members picking up their children on a recent evening said the center had made a big difference for them.
They appreciated the curriculum, which one parent said features monthly themes that change according to the children’s interests. They liked the classroom, with its large windows and natural materials — the center is furnished with birchwood tables and play kitchens, its play spaces demarcated by area rugs. But one of the biggest luxuries for overworked Hill staffers, they said, was the convenience.
“You are already hard-pressed at the end of the day to pick up your children on time, especially when you work on the Hill, where workdays can go really late,” the House aide with the 16-month-old daughter said. “That extra ten to fifteen minutes I don’t have to drive makes a big difference.”
Vanek, a staff member in the Office of the House Legislative Counsel, said moving her two children had cut her family’s $40,000 annual child care budget almost in half. She said it also gave her peace of mind.
“It’s made a huge difference to my family, knowing our kids can be close to me while I’m working,” she said.
There are other unquantifiable benefits.
“Having a better workplace environment will be that little extra bit that helps the House and Senate retain better employees,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that helps Hill offices improve their management, operations, and interactions with constituents.
Wait lists at the other day care facilities that cater to congressional staff are unaffected by the expansion, though the GAO has been asked to conduct a study of the capacity and management of the Senate center, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The Senate day care’s capacity is 68 children, and more than 200 children were on the wait list last fall.