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Affordable Child Care for Postdocs: One Institution's Solution

"Why should child care cost as much as college tuition?" "Having two children in day care at one time is very expensive--it consumes almost a whole month's paycheck." "How is a female postdoc supposed to stay motivated?"

If you are a postdoctoral fellow with young children, you have probably asked yourself some of these same questions. According to the National Academy of Sciences publication "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience For Scientists and Engineers," one-third to one-half of all postdocs in the biological or medical sciences have children, and more than one-half of all postdocs are married. With the rising costs of child care, the financial burden weighs heavily. Thus, child care has become an important issue to a substantial number of postdoctoral scientists. Working together, the Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee (SPAC) and the administrative leaders at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, Washington, have found a way to assist postdocs with the financial burden of child care.

SPAC was formed to represent the interests of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and medical fellows at the FHCRC and to help them obtain the best education possible for their future careers. To understand the needs of current FHCRC postdocs, SPAC surveyed postdocs and students on topics including mentoring, benefits, equipment and facilities, career development, and child care needs. The survey results indicated that child care is an important issue to many postdocs. But how could SPAC, as a postdoc organization, address this important issue?

One advantage SPAC had in trying to answer postdocs' child care needs was the existence--onsite--of a nationally accredited child care facility, Hutch Kids Child Care, which provides care for children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years. However, Hutch Kids (and child care in the city of Seattle in general) is very expensive, with costs ranging from $900 to $1500 a month for infants. All FHCRC faculty and staff (including postdocs) have priority in admission to Hutch Kids; however, tuition rates were the same regardless of employee status. At those rates, it was difficult for a two-postdoc family to afford good child care.

To ease the financial burden on postdocs, SPAC's best option was the creation of a child care subsidy program. We were fortunate in that the University of Washington had (and still has ...) a child care subsidy program for graduate students that we could adapt to our needs. Applicants to the FHCRC program would be evaluated according to criteria such as total household income levels, full-time employment, number of children, and parent/guardian status. SPAC estimated the number of subsidy program participants using the results of the postdoc/student survey and then presented a budget proposal to the FHCRC human resources department, the chief executive officer, the senior vice presidents, and the board of directors.

With the strong support of Human Resources VP Han Nachtrieb and faculty member Linda Breeden, as well as financial support from CFO Peggy Means, this proposal to establish a subsidy program for children of qualifying postdocs was accepted. Funding for the subsidy program would come from charitable contributions to the FHCRC and interest income from investments. In September 2000, SPAC proudly started the Postdoc Childcare Subsidy Program for qualifying postdocs and medical fellows at the FHCRC.

Currently, the program is set up to provide a 25% subsidy--up to $200 per month--for 35 individual children. Applications for child care assistance are reviewed on a quarterly basis to update any changes in income levels, child care providers (participants are required to use a state-licensed child care facility), and child care costs. Although both postdocs and medical fellows are eligible for the subsidy, the salary guidelines were based on the lower of the two pay scales--that of NRSA postdocs. Administration of the program and review of the participant qualification, including confirmation of income levels and license status of child care facilities, is performed by a program administrator employed part-time by the FHCRC. So that there is no income tax burden on the postdoc for the amount of the subsidy, the subsidy checks are mailed directly each month to the child care provider.

"The definition of a postdoc is changing; it lasts longer and pays poorly just at the time when most people are starting a family. The Hutch is setting a stellar example of how to help young scientists balance family and career," notes Estelle Steiner, a current recipient of the subsidy. She goes on to say, "My husband and I are both postdocs and have two small children--it would be difficult for both of us to pursue our careers in research without this assistance." As of 1 November 2000, 15 FHCRC postdocs (and 25 children) are receiving assistance with their child care costs through the Postdoc Childcare Subsidy Program. As for myself, as a mother of three children who are in child care, I would not be able to pursue my career in cancer research without the FHCRC subsidy.

Karen Spratt is a second-year postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Christopher Kemp in the Cancer Biology Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She holds a B.S. and an M.S. from the University of Michigan, and she obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Karen is the current chairperson of SPAC.

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