Chamber event puts focus on what’s keeping workers at home

The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama is spending time throughout the month hearing from experts and residents regarding problems the area faces when it comes to keeping employers and their employees happy and productive.

Topics in the organization’s Next Level Series have already focused on crime, diversity and infrastructure. This week’s topic? Barriers keeping residents at home instead of in the workforce.

Some of the most common barriers include a lack of affordable, safe child care, housing and transportation. Solving those issues means more people can earn a solid living, said West Alabama Works Executive Director Donny Jones.

“This is a real critical strategy for our community, to build the workforce we need for the coming years,” Jones said.

About 20% of Alabama’s 4.8 million residents live in poverty, and 11% receive disability benefits or welfare. Some of those residents would be capable of earning more money if they had reliable transportation, Jones said.

“How are we as a community going to help support them in getting back in the workforce, and what are the types of programs we put in place where individuals can get to and from work?” Jones said.

Much of Alabama is rural, and 16% of the state’s residents travel at least 34 miles to work every day. That means those workers need reliable transportation and enough money for gas.

Even then, many residents who have reliable transportation are out of luck when it comes to child care. It’s astronomically expensive, and waitlists can be years long, meaning even those who can afford it might be stuck in limbo waiting for a coveted spot to open.

According to an Alabama Department of Human Resources child care market rate survey, the average cost for a single child in 2021 attending day care in Tuscaloosa is $127 a week, or $508 a month.

Some employers, like Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, have on-site child care services, but there is a cost involved.

“Employees won’t stay if they don’t have a safe, consistent place for their children to go,” said University of Alabama Early Childhood Education Assistant Professor Allison Hooper.

Child care is a complicated endeavor in Alabama because of the costs involved, Hooper said, so there aren’t many people lining up to open a day care.

“We need more child care programs to start with,” Hooper said. “It’s hard to run a child care business, and it’s hard to make a profit.”

The Next Level Series continues March 23 with a discussion on economic diversification. You can learn more about the event right here.

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