Aug 19, 2021

‘If I Lose One More Person I Have to Close’: What It Might Take To Fix The Child Care Crisis

At a fairground in North Haverhill, N.H., past the rides and an obstacle course set up for goats, Amy Brooks was recruiting.

She stood at a booth not far from a gun raffle and a fudge stand, hawking an industry she says is a little different than retail.

“Small humans are amazing, and it’s not a desk job,” she said. “There are days that are tough, but you’re being part of a child’s ... childhood story.”

Brooks worked in child care for 20 years, directing a center. She has blonde hair, pulled back in a messy bun and a big smile. Now, she’s here on behalf of the Early Care and Education Association, a nonprofit that supports early childhood educators across the Upper Valley. And they're desperate.

Many centers in the region aren't open at full capacity and have reduced their hours. Some directors aren’t sure if they’ll be able to keep their doors open. They can’t find enough staff.

“They’ll call me crying,” Brooks said. “‘If I have to lose one more person I have to close.’ And they have to turn away 30 families.”

Since the pandemic hit, centers across the Upper Valley region are short more than 200 employees. That translates to some 500 fewer slots for kids, according to a survey from the Early Care and Education Association, conducted earlier this year.

That’s compared to pre-pandemic levels, when child care was already hard to come by, particularly for infants, who require more staffing.

“I’ve been directing here for 20 years and it’s never been easy,” said Brenda Danielson, who runs Cradle and Crayon child development center in Hanover, N.H. “It’s always been a challenge. But this is a crisis.”

She hears from families looking for child care every day. “They’re calling us in tears because they don’t know what to do," Danielson said. "They’ve moved here to take a job, or they’re planning to move here, and we’re telling them we have no hope of giving them a space, even in six months or nine months, and they’re very, very desperate.”

Nick Wood and Jamie Rosenfeld, of Norwich, know this problem well. They were on waiting lists for seven months before their daughter was born. When Rosenfeld’s maternity leave was up, they still didn't have child care. So Wood left his job. It wasn’t a light decision.

“There was definitely some sadness,” he said. “It took a moment to get excited for this.”

He had been the program director of an outdoor center in Fairlee. He liked his job, and he'd never thought about being a stay-at-home dad.

“You just kind of assumed, or at least I did, that there would be some child care options out there, if we could afford it,” he said.

Many new parents are stuck in the same position. A recent survey of families in Norwich found that in three-quarters of households, a parent or caregiver had to leave their job or cut back on hours because they couldn’t find child care.

“I have a friend who's due in a couple of days, who I know is on at least eight waitlists, maybe more,” said Rosenfeld. “And I have another friend who has heard that it’s so bad that she is not even pregnant and doesn't even have a timeline to be pregnant, and she's on a waitlist already.”

A study by the nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, which works on child care issues throughout the state, showed that more than 60% of infants in Vermont didn’t have access to childcare — and that was before the pandemic hit.

Experts say the reason for this massive shortage comes down to money. Unlike public schools, child care centers are largely paid for by parents. And they’re expensive.

Let’s Grow Kids found that even some families who receive financial assistance from the state spend more than 30% of their income on child care. Around Norwich, costs range from about $9,000 a year, at reduced rates, to over $25,000 a year, according to a local survey.

But because of a complicated set of regulations, staffing ratios, and insurance requirements, the high cost of care doesn’t translate to competitive pay for providers.

Most early childhood educators in Vermont make less than $15 an hour, often without benefits, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many staff end up leaving centers to work in public schools, where they can make nearly $20,000 more in a year, with similar qualifications.

Competition between child care centers and schools over staff is particularly bad right now, said Brooks, from the Early Care and Education Association.

“There are a massive amount of paraprofessionals that are in need,” Brooks said. She wants to get in front of potential hires, “before [they get] scooped up by a public school.”

Besides showing up to the fairgrounds, her group has a few other strategies to sweeten the pot. They’re offering cash for anyone who visits a center as a prospective employee, modest benefit packages, and free training for existing staff that qualifies them for better pay.

But the underlying issues of low pay and staff turnover are too big and entrenched for any local efforts to work alone.

“No level of community engagement and leadership can fix that fundamental funding problem,” said Aly Richards, the CEO of Let’s Grow Kids.

“Parents cannot afford to pay more and early educators cannot afford to make any less. And that's the funding model.”

Richards has identical two-year-old boys, and usually lives in Montpelier. But she and her husband had to relocate to her childhood home in Newbury during the pandemic.

“My parents have been my primary child care, because we lost our formal child care, after taking 11 months to find it,” she said. “I'm in my parents' bedroom right now.”

Despite how grim the situation might look, Richards says Vermont is actually poised to pump major dollars into the industry.

In May, legislation passed that set a goal for low and middle-income families to pay no more than 10% of their income on child care. It also said the salaries of early childhood educators should be on par with those of public school teachers.

"Ultimately, the strategy is compensation," said Richards. "That is the hole in the tapestry that we need to reweave."

A big catch, though, is that right now, there’s no plan to pay for this. A research committee is supposed to tackle this question over the next year and a half.

But Richards and other industry leaders say they're confident the funding will come through. Especially now, as the pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of child care.

In the meantime, the same legislation allocated money for scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for child care staff, and is offering higher subsidies to programs that serve low-income families.

It’s nowhere near enough to meet the staffing needs across the state, but the hope is that it will help keep centers afloat.

“What we really need to do is get staff back into centers, so they can get to their break-even point,” Brooks said.

“We have got to be finding the people that we had, just to get back where we were.”

Click here to listen to audio and read this story on VPR's website. 

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