Books & Bibs Child Development and Learning Center is a certified daycare center that would be covered under a new program funded by Work Force Solutions Alamo providing funding for daycare for local service workers.
Books & Bibs Child Development and Learning Center is one of the providers that would be covered under a new Workforce Solutions Alamo program that funds child care for local service workers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

If you work in a restaurant, hotel, retail, or in other service industries, you may be eligible for free child care under a new program.

Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA), the local arm of the Texas Workforce Commission, has launched a $44 million program to provide full financial support for a year of child care to local service workers.

Dubbed Service Industry Relief Childcare Funding, the program will be paid for by federal funds delivered by the state workforce commission.

While service workers and their children will be the immediate beneficiaries of the new program, the goal is to boost the long-term health of the service industries. WSA CEO Adrian Lopez said in a prepared statement that the new funding will help “restore the vitality of our service industry employers.”

Desperation for workers has risen among management at restaurants, bars, hotels, and stores as diners and tourists are eating out, traveling, and shopping at near pre-pandemic levels. As of Sept. 9, the workforce commission reported 3,690 job postings in retail in the WSA region and an additional 2,549 postings in hotel and food service. There were 357 job postings in the category of “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation.”

But in these historically low-paying industries, many of the tens of thousands of workers across the region who were laid off last year are reluctant to return, while others are quitting at record rates.

Service employer associations have a strong interest in the new program.

“Our goal is to get people back to work and our economy back on track,” said Dawn Larios, the executive director of the San Antonio chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association. “It’s going to take our industry years to recover, but this is a step forward for our industry and our parents.”

Her organization, along with the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association, is helping to spread the word about the child care subsidies to employers in the area.

To entice labor back, some service sector employers have raised wages in recent months, but for many workers, ensuring safe and dependable care for their young children is an important part of the equation when it comes to finding — or keeping — a job.

Joel Rivas, the founder of Heard, a local nonprofit offering mental health support for bar and restaurant workers, said child care is one of the most common stressors brought up in support groups.

“They’re not making enough to afford child care, and they can’t afford it because they can’t work enough,” he said. “It’s a real cycle for people in the service industry.”

Staffing shortages have only compounded the issue, he said. Service workplaces were already defined by erratic schedules that changed weekly and sometimes daily, and their unpredictability has only intensified to keep pace as staffs remain stretched thin.

“For those that don’t have consistent child care, it can be quite difficult,” he said. Though Rivas hadn’t heard of the new child care assistance for service workers, he said he thought it could “help a lot” in these workers’ lives.

While the new funding is for service workers, all other families continue to have access to the Texas Workforce Commission’s routine child care subsidies.

Although the local workforce commission is arguably best known for its jobs fairs and career counseling, it actually spends three-quarters of its budget on child care subsidies, according to the organization. These subsidies allow parents to go back to school, receive training, or become employed. They are available to many working families who meet income requirements.

To qualify for the service worker program, which makes child care free for one year, at least one parent must be employed in the service industry — a category that includes work in entertainment, art, recreation, hotels, food services, bars, and retail.

Certain family income conditions apply, based on the size of the household. For example, a family of two cannot make more than $43,549 annually; a family of four cannot make more than $64,043.

The child or children must be under 13, or under 19 if disabled, and have legal citizenship or immigration status.

Workforce Solutions Alamo covers a 13-county area, which extends as far south as McMullen County and as far north as Gillespie County.

Interested parents and caregivers can find out more about their eligibility here and apply here. Workforce Solutions Alamo is encouraging all businesses whose employees may be eligible to share this information with their employees.

A map of child care centers partnered with WSA can be found here.

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.