Workforce

First Watch may have hit on a major way of reducing last-minute shift cancellations

The daytime dining chain has added backup child and elderly care as an employee benefit. Workers pay as little as $10 a day for the service.
First Watch restaurant exterior
Employees can bring their kids to a care center run by a third party or pay to have someone come to their homes. | Photo courtesy of First Watch.

It’s a complication familiar to any restaurant employer: An employee can’t make his or her shift because their babysitter just canceled, leaving them without someone to watch the kids. Could someone else take their hours?

Executives of the First Watch breakfast, lunch and brunch chain heard enough laments about that turn of events—not only from parents on the payroll, but from the co-workers who often have to cover for them—that it decided to do something.

The result was the rollout several months ago of an employee benefit seldom seen in the restaurant business: backup childcare, available at a rate that won’t upend budgets. Up to seven times a year, employees who suddenly find themselves without childcare for the day can drop off the youngsters at one of several thousand centers operated by Bright Horizons, an established and well-vetted specialist in the care field.

A whole day’s care for one child will cost the staff member $10. For two or more children, the daily fee is capped at $15.

Employees in that predicament can also opt to have someone come to the house and watch the kids at a rate of $4 an hour. Bright Horizons maintains a network of those caregivers numbering into the thousands.

One way or another, the services provided by Bright Horizons are available within 98% of First Watch’s market area, according to Laura Sorensen, chief people officer for the daytime dining chain.

Elderly care, too

While introducing the system to employees, one general manager wished aloud that a similar option was available to employees who are caring for an elderly parent or other relative. If a bus to the local adult care facility doesn’t show, or a one-on-one health aide has to cancel on short notice, the employee-caregiver is in the same pickle as a parent left without a babysitter.

The thought registered with Sorensen, who faces that care obligation in her own life. The deal with Bright Horizons was broadened to include backup care for an elderly dependent.

Employees’ contributions don’t cover the complete cost of the service, with First Watch providing the rest of the charge. But, says Sorensen, the company is confident it will actually save money because seasoned employees won’t have to leave their shifts to greenhorns or force co-workers to over-stretch because the operation is short-staffed.

The program has been underway for too short a time to put that expectation to the test, according to Sorensen. But, she says, employees are already voicing their appreciation, even if they haven’t yet tried the program. “It’s a matter of just knowing it’s there,” she says.

The option is available to all employees of First Watch, which operates most of the restaurants within the system. Franchisees have the option of extending the benefit at their expense to the individuals on their payrolls.

The chain started searching for a way to provide childcare—long viewed as economically unfeasible for the labor-intensive restaurant industry—after hearing employees’ longing for it rise appreciably during and right after the pandemic.

First Watch has systemized a way of short-circuiting communications from its field workforce to headquarters. Every year, the CEO, CFO and chief people officer hold 22 90-minute phone calls with groups of employees to learn what’s on their minds. The program is known as WHY, for We Hear You.

The questions can be as broad as, “What’s happening in your life?” or as focused as, “What do you like or hate about your job?” says Sorensen.

“It was on these calls that we started to hear about childcare, and not just from parents, but even from co-workers who don’t have children,” says Sorensen. The childless employees said the no-show of a caregiver was still an issue for them because they have to cover for the employee who’s stuck minding the kids.

“We were increasingly hearing more about it, to the point where we knew we had to do something,” she recounts. “Sometimes you have to create a solution on your own. And sometimes you discover, ‘Wait a minute, somebody has already created a solution!’”

Bright Horizons’ program would work for First Watch because the restaurant chain operates exclusively during the daytime. Horizons’ care centers aren’t open in the evening or at night, or what are routine shift times for most restaurants.

First Watch restaurants serve only breakfast, brunch and lunch, with most units closing at about 2:30 p.m.

Because of those hours, the chain is known to be a particularly convenient place for parents to work. Mom or dad can drop off the kids at school, work the daytime shift, and then be back to pick up the youngsters after their classes end. And they can be home to have dinner with the family.

First Watch has been progressive in its benefits program for employees, a trait Sorensen and other executives attribute to the philosophy of co-founder and longtime chain conscience Ken Pendery, who died last month at age 70. The cardinal directive he set for the chain, which still leads a now-codified statement of principles, is “Just be kind.”

The chain’s employment benefits include paid time off, education assistance, discounted meals and an open-door policy at headquarters for corporate staff members’ dogs.

More are coming, suggests Sorensen. For instance, what about backup pet care?

Turns out, she says, that Bright Horizons already offers a program.

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