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How Frontier Co-op formalized a 40-plus-year commitment to childcare benefits

The herbs and spices manufacturer in Eastern Iowa has had a formal onsite childcare center since the 1980s, and currently supports 110 kids.
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Courtesy of Project Mockingbird

· 4 min read

When Frontier Co-op, an herbs and spices manufacturer, launched in 1976, the eastern Iowa-based company employed many women from farming families who were the primary caregivers in their households.

“They were entering the workforce for insurance purposes, to be honest,” said Megan Schulte, Frontier’s VP of HR. “Many times, the men were out in the field. When they would come into the workplace, they would need childcare, so they just started bringing their kids along with them.”

What started as an informal operation of Frontier employees pitching in to take care of their colleagues’ kids was formalized in the 1980s as a subsidized onsite childcare program. Today, Frontier runs a childcare center at its Norway, Iowa headquarters that supports 110 kids. The benefit is part of Frontier’s “Breaking Down Barriers to Employment” initiative, which seeks to help employees overcome systemic challenges, including a lack of access to childcare.

How Frontier runs its childcare program. Rather than partner with a third-party provider, such as Bright Horizons or KinderCare, to run its onsite childcare center, Frontier has a license to run the operation itself. Frontier employs childcare center workers directly; the employees who work at the center receive the same benefits as the rest of the company’s workforce.

The childcare center is open from 7am to 6pm, and supports children from the time they’re six weeks old up until they turn 12. Frontier runs before and after-school programs for kids enrolled in elementary school, and partners with the local school district to coordinate pickups and dropoffs. During the summer, they also run a day camp onsite.

With the subsidy Frontier provides, the costs of these programs comes to about $2 an hour for employees, or under $100 a week, Schulte said.

Frontier also offers a childcare reimbursement for employees who want to send their children to daycare centers off-site. The company will reimburse up to 55% of a worker’s childcare expenses, up to $90 a week per child, according to Schulte. This program is intended for employees who already have a trusted provider, or for whom it doesn’t make logistical sense to enroll their kids in Frontier’s onsite offerings. She said the reimbursement is also utilized by employees who work at one of Frontier’s three other Iowa locations, but don’t want to send their kids to the Norway center.

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Schulte estimates about 20% of Frontier employees took advantage of one of its childcare programs within the last year.

Lessons from a legacy program. As of 2023, just 4% of employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource management offered a subsidized childcare center or program. And though onsite childcare represents a significant investment, employers like UPS and Tyson Foods have piloted or launched such programs in recent years. The Best Place for Working Parents (BP4WP), which promotes family-friendly policies for US employers, reported the number of businesses within their network offering onsite childcare grew from 9% in 2020 to 13% in 2023.

This uptick in onsite care offerings reflects the fact that employers are “thinking about it as a key tool for attraction and retention,” Sadie Funk, BP4WP’s director, told HR Brew. She said BP4WP has been hearing a lot about onsite childcare from manufacturing employers that typically deal with high turnover levels. The thinking, Funk explained, is “if we can provide high quality care for their child here, one, they’re more likely to come work for us, but two, they’re more likely to stay.”

Frontier does about $200 million in sales, and spends about $300,000 on its childcare programs, Schulte estimated. “You don’t get into the business of childcare to actually make money,” she said at a panel hosted by BP4WP on May 9.

But the program pays off in other ways, Schulte said. Frontier currently has less than 10 job openings (the company employs about 550 workers total), and is able to fill manufacturing jobs in less than 30 days. Schulte told HR Brew Frontier always has immediate openings at its daycare for new employees joining the company.

“I do believe that there are solutions to these challenges that we’re having,” Schulte said. “We just have to think more creatively and critically about the solutions.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.