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Can the tech industry solve child care problems? Some companies are betting on it

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Could the tech industry help solve some of America's childcare problems? A handful of companies are betting on it, and no, it has nothing to do with sticking your child in front of a screen. Far from it, as NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: One of these companies is called TOOTRiS. Its name is a play on...

ALESSANDRA LEZAMA: ...Tutrice, which is the Latin root for governess and/or tutor.

HSU: Tech entrepreneur Alessandra Lezama is founder and CEO. She had the idea for the company after seeing her own employees struggle to find and pay for childcare. As a CEO and a single mom herself, Lezama was intent on finding a way to help working parents, especially moms. But she quickly discovered trying to do anything was daunting. She couldn't just build an onsite center. That would be prohibitively expensive.

LEZAMA: My board would not vote for it, and my investors wouldn't have it, and the landlord didn't like it, and my insurance company liked it less.

HSU: And besides, families have diverse needs when it comes to childcare. Not everyone wants the same thing.

LEZAMA: Every family has different age requirements, cultural requirements, language requirements, faith-based or non-faith-based. Do I need it close to home or close to work?

HSU: You often hear experts say there is no one size fits all solution for childcare. But employers hungry for workers don't have the patience to deal with that reality. They want a simple fix. Now the race is on to provide that. A number of new ideas have sprung up to help employers help their workers meet their childcare needs. TOOTRiS, a software company, is one of them. It's signed on hundreds of companies in just five years.

LEZAMA: We work with all sorts of companies, the automotive space, government.

HSU: Also, hospitals, chipmakers, including Micron, the San Diego Sheriff's Department. Think of TOOTRiS as kind of a mashup - AirBNB meets a benefits management platform. For employers who pay a portion of their workers childcare costs, TOOTRiS manages that, and employees get access to a database of care providers. TOOTRiS has vetted a couple hundred thousand of them across the country. That proved invaluable for Sadie Storey when she started working rotating shifts at the Mazda-Toyota plant outside Huntsville, Ala.

SADIE STOREY: I'm not from here. I don't have family here, so it's hard. I need daycare.

HSU: She had a good setup at a place called Little Einsteins. But last year, she had to start working overnights four weeks at a time. Little Einsteins was only open during the day.

STOREY: She didn't offer night care...

HSU: ...Which was a problem. Her kid's father is a pipe fitter who travels all the time. Fortunately, for her, Mazda-Toyota is one of the automakers TOOTRiS works with. She was able to find Krystal Sanders, who provides exactly what shift workers like Storey need.

KRYSTAL SANDERS: I pretty much make my availability open.I'm 24 hours.

HSU: Sanders cares for children out of her two-bedroom apartment.

SANDERS: Here are my sleep cots that I have right here.

HSU: She's got a closet full of bedding. She's put a lot of thought into this because she knows what it's like to have shift work and not have care. When her daughter was growing up, she worked for Waffle House. In the summer, and on weekends, even for a short time on overnights, her daughter would just come to Waffle House with her.

SANDERS: Go to sleep in the car. Mmm-hmmm. Yep, so she did that (laughter). I did that because I didn't have child care.

HSU: Now, child care is seldom a lucrative business. Home-based providers like Sanders often struggle to stay afloat. That's why companies like TOOTRiS that are connecting these small businesses to large employers have gotten the attention of policymakers. Later this month, Alessandra Lezama will bring her ideas to the first-ever National Child Care Innovation Summit. It's hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.