N.J. health system pushes back closure of child care program after employee outcry

Hackensack Meridian Health has pushed back the planned shutdown of its decades-old onsite child care program for employees by three months after fierce criticism from staff and a union representing health care workers.

The health system announced Tuesday that it was extending child care services through Dec. 31 from the originally planned date of Sept. 30. It also suggested it was weighing other ways to help employees who need child care.

“In an effort to provide additional transition time for our HMH team members and child care families, our child care facilities will remain open through December 31, 2022,” the network said in statement to NJ Advance Media. “We will continue to evaluate any and all options for a permanent solution and remain committed to supporting our team members and child care families during this transition.”

The health system, which employs more than 30,000 workers throughout the state, announced the plan to end the child care program last week in a letter to parents.

The health system had opted to end the program because it was “no longer a sustainable model for our organization,” it said in the letter.

“The current child care landscape is rapidly changing, putting a great deal of financial and staffing pressures on organizations that offer child care services,” the letter said. “It addition, there is a heavy capital commitment needed to maintain the child care facilities as well as significant New Jersey requirements.”

Some employees say they were blindsided and must scramble to find an alternative, which is challenging for those in a profession with irregular hours and frequently changing schedules.

The workers said the move seems contrarian to the push among hospitals to address a severe staffing shortage after many left bedside work in the pandemic.

The health system’s child care program, they say, offered longer hours than most conventional centers as well as other perks, such as on-site pediatricians, at affordable rates.

Kim Margiasso, a mother of four and a registered nurse at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, said the child care center there was a godsend.

“It’s amazing. It’s a blessing,” said Margiasso, who has worked at the hospital for 17 years. “I work 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. three days a week, and it’s alternating days and no set schedule.”

She has checked out other child care options since last week, she said, and found none with the flexible hours or affordability as Hackensack Meridian, which charges anywhere from $6.50 to $8 an hour.

“We know we can bring our kids here — they’re right here. It gives you a peace of mind,” Margiasso said. “They don’t close, except for about six federal holidays. Even in a snowstorm, unless it was literally unsafe for them to get here, [the child care center employees] showed up.”

Noelle Ragusa, a nurse at Jersey Shore for 11 years, has left her two sons, ages 6 and 2, at the child care center.

“We were in the dark. There was no transparency, no communication” before the announcement, she said.

Hackensack Meridian’s program offered after-school care, as well as the chance to enroll school-age children there during the summer and winter and spring breaks, she said.

Ragusa has found a new place, but it’s about 25 minutes from work and much more expensive.

Both Ragusa and Margiasso said they would have been willing to pay more for child care if the cost of providing it had become an issue for their employer.

It is unclear how many other hospitals and health systems in New Jersey offer employees on-site child care services.

“This decision was not made lightly,” Hackensack Meridian said in its letter to child care center clients. “We conducted an extensive evaluation of our child care operations to determine the best go-forward option. This included meeting with several best in class vendors to consider potential partnerships before making the decision to close our facilities.”

Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees union, said the health system’s decision is baffling given the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits it makes each year and pandemic relief funding it received.

Some of the pandemic funds, White said, were intended to help with child care costs.

“If we think about the past two years, the horrible conditions that health care workers worked in, and how they have really sacrificed a lot…” White said. “There are many who migrated out of the profession. But when you think about those who have remained, and have relied on this job to keep this child care center — it’s a poor decision by Hackensack Meridian.”

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Elizabeth Llorente may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.