BENNINGTON — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, appearing at a Bennington child care center the day after a pair of relief bills passed the U.S. House of Representatives, said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that affordable, accessible child care is an economic and social necessity. 

Welch, D-Vt., appearing on the front lawn of Sunrise Family Resource Center on Union Street with early education providers, advocates and state officials, hailed the passage of both bills as a significant step in making child care accessible and affordable.

"If we come out of this COVID crisis and look over the horizon and realize that the time has long since arrived for our state and our country to have comprehensive access to affordable child care, we'll have accomplished something that will be of lasting benefit," he said. 

The Child Care Is Essential Act provides $50 billion in grant funding for child care providers during and after the pandemic. 

Its companion, the Child Care for Economic Recovery Act, increases the child and dependent care tax credit and makes it refundable, increases the exclusion from employee income for employer-provided dependent care assistance, and allows employers payroll tax credits for certain fixed expenses of child care facilities closed due to COVID-19.

Families with incomes up to $120,000 would qualify for credits of $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children, Welch said. 

The funding would come from federal borrowing, Welch said. 

"Business as usual simply doesn't work" for a once-in-a-century event such as the pandemic, he said. "We have to err on the side of doing too much too soon rather than doing too little too late." 

Welch and other speakers addressed the legislation's importance, and the effort that child care facilities such as Sunrise Family Resource Center have provided to children and families in the midst of crisis. 

Sunrise Family Resource Center is licensed for 22 children and employing 26 people, and made use of federal Payroll Protection Program funds to keep going, said executive director Denise Main. The two bills passed by Congress would allow the center to offer affordable childcare to all families, and help the industry grow, she added. 

"Families are overstressed at this time," Main said. "To have that burden taken off of families, for families not having to choose if they send child to child care or return to work, is an exiting proposition."

Federal funding would also make it possible for more child care providers to go into business in the area and in the state of Vermont, said Main and Aly Richards, executive director of Let's Grow Kids, a nonprofit advocating for accessible, affordable healthcare. 

"The world just woke up to what Denise and her team at Sunrise has known forever, what Let's Grow Kids has known forever — that child care is essential," Richards said. "It is the heart of our society and the backbone of our economy, and maybe it took a pandemic to wake up to it, but now we know."

"If we have had anything impressed on us by this COVID experience it's the absolute urgent need to have comprehensive availability of our child care for the well being of our kids and our parents and families," Welch said. "If we don't have child care, parents are not going to be able to go back to work."

Both bills passed with about 20 Republicans voting yes — about 160 voted no — and Welch pointed to that bipartisan support as evidence that lawmakers have heard from constituents about the importance of child care. He hopes that Republican support will sway the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to approve the plan, though he added he's "leery" of opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"It's the first time that the House has passed a comprehensive bill that acknowledges the absolutely critical role of child care in the well being of our families," Welch said. "As elusive as bipartisan cooperation is, when we can get it on something so important as a major commitment to child care it gives me some confidence that even if we don't get through the Senate this year, it's the beginning of where we start next year."

In his talks with Vermont parents, Welch said, "One-third are very anxious about the health and well-being of their children, and that's why taking steps to address that is so essential. Another one-third of parents don't know what they'll do if the kids can't go back to school because they don't have day care. They're fearful that they'll lose their jobs."

The remaining third Welch said, have simply thrown up their hands and don't know what to do. 

In Vermont, "Child care was hurting before the pandemic," Richards said. Before COVID-19 hit, she said, three out of five of the state's youngest children didn't have access to affordable quality child care, households in Vermont were paying as much as 30 percent of their household income for it, and the early educators staffing facilities were making poverty wages with no benefits. 

That said, Vermont state government stepped up when the pandemic struck, creating a child care stabilization program to keep facilities open and parents at work, Richards said. 

"Vermont was the only state in country that said 'No, under our watch we will not let this industry go bankrupt,'" Richards said. 

That said, there's no going back to the way things were, she said. 

"The pandemic offers us an odd opportunity in this way. We can't rebuild to what we had," Richards said. "It didn't work for Vermont. It didn't work for our kids and families." 

Steven Berbeco, the state deputy commissioner for child development within the Department for Children and Families, said he was proud of Vermont's response to the child care challenge when the pandemic hit, and noted it was largely made possible by federal funding — namely, the CARES Act. 

"We're out of that initial pandemic push and we feel a bit of breathing space, and we're getting ready for might come next," Berbeco said. "A lot of that readiness comes from support like these two federal bills that will provide much needed funding."

"It's too soon to breathe easy and too soon to revert back to what we were doing before March," Berbeco said. "I'm looking forward to the passage of these bills and additional funding that will help us to do the work we need to do."