Last week, members of Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) plastered the campus with posters that asked students to consider the lack of childcare services available to the College’s faculty and staff.
On Tuesday afternoon, SLAP held a “Chow and Chat” to discuss the issue with members of Swarthmore’s community. About thirty people—predominantly faculty, staff, and SLAP members—gathered in a Science Center classroom and shared their personal struggles in finding childcare, their frustrations with the administration’s lack of cooperation, and their hopes for future institution-wide improvements.
While Swarthmore does provide its employees with a “flex account” that helps cover some of the costs of childcare from a licensed provider, it offers no on-site facility. Individuals present at the meeting noted the this inflexible set up did not meet their needs, especially in its failure to address the reality that nearby childcare is “prohibitively expensive on most staff and faculty salaries.”
“A lot of my colleagues had stay-at-home partners or mentality of ‘I made it through, so can you’,” one faculty member said. “People who need it most have the least voice.”
A representative from Swarthmore Human Resources emphasized her desire to make affordable daycare a reality for all but said that “depending on the money available, staff and faculty would have to give up something else” making it paramount that any proposal be “as universally appealing as possible.”
After about 45 minutes of conversation, SLAP members led the group in brainstorming possible next steps in their campaign.
Various individuals said a good first step could be considering the implementation of a Bryn Mawr program, “Parents in a Pinch” that provides temporary subsidized childcare to parents facing extenuating circumstances.
People expressed their desire for a comprehensive survey of staff and faculty that would better quantify their demand for childcare provided through the College. They also wanted to calculate the expenses of such a program and facility.
“We can find the money for childcare because we need to. Part of what it means to be a responsible institution [is] to consider our staff as people” said Ben Wolcott ’14 after the meeting. “All of our peer institutions do it. If they can do it, why can’t we?”
Zoë Wray ’16 had a different take, saying “Swarthmore does not have a responsibility as a business to provide for its employees in every way. It’s not hurting anyone at a ridiculous level if they don’t provide childcare. That is not unreasonable to not provide childcare as a benefit.”
The debate about childcare is not a new one for Swarthmore’s workers. In the 1980’s, a Women’s Concerns Committee worked unsuccessfully to reach bring a daycare to Swarthmore’s campus. Linguistics Professor Donna Jo Napoli led the most recent efforts.
“I canvassed the community via email [and] wrote saying . . . if you would like to see the college offer childcare on a sliding scale to . . . the college community, would you please let me know” Napoli said in a recent interview. “My inbox was flooded. I don’t know how many emails I got that day.”
Despite the positive feedback she received, she said that she gained little traction among administrators who continued to view on-site childcare as an unnecessary cost to the College.
In fact, it appears that the College once accepted these costs as necessary to the College’s employees. “Years ago money was set aside to start a daycare center” Napoli said. “If you look at how Swarthmore’s endowment has grown, that money has grown at the same rate because it was in the endowment. Much more money should be available now.”
This money was mysteriously reallocated by the College’s administration.
Napoli views this reallocation as unacceptable. “We’ve got that money, we just need to decide that [a daycare] is a worthy investment” Napoli said. “We don’t even need to take that money out of the pot of salary raises, we need to just go back to the original pot it was in and calculate how much it would have inflated to today and just be honest and give it back.”
Like Wolcott, she expressed her frustration many other liberal arts schools already provide childcare to their employees and Swarthmore does not, asking “Why are we, when we say we are such leaders, always the last to do something? We shouldn’t be the last and we shouldn’t do the minimum. We should do what’s right and lead the way—we’re Swarthmore”
While an uncooperative administrators and the economic downturn in 2008 stymied her efforts, she feels more hopeful with SLAP’s involvement. “I think that students are the most powerful voice on this campus” she said.
On Tuesday, SLAP members voices were mostly quiet as they listened to Swarthmore’s employees.
“I really appreciated hearing everyone’s ideas and how excited staff and faculty are about [organizing around childcare]” Wolcott said. “SLAP is really interested in partnering with staff and faculty but not with making many decisions. We want to use power of students to push for what they need.”
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