‘The math just doesn’t add up’: Child care workers are leaving the field
Jonny Flood quit working at a child care center in Montpelier last fall to take a job as a literacy program manager at a local nonprofit.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Flood has taught for over a decade, and he loved it. But he was worried about exposing his older parents and his sister’s new baby to Covid-19, and he was angry, like many of his colleagues, about being forced back to in-person work with what he believed was too little support from the state.
A job at the Vermont Humanities Council, meanwhile, offered him the opportunity to stop living paycheck to paycheck, and — amid a global pandemic — finally get health insurance.
“The way that this is set up doesn’t make a lick of sense. That I can have an easier, safer, more comfortable life once I leave a job that we all agree is essential to the functioning of our state,” Flood said.
Salaries near the minimum wage and a lack of basic benefits like health insurance have long made it difficult for the child-care sector to attract enough workers to meet a pre-Covid demand for care. But providers across Vermont report that a pandemic-era wave of resignations is pushing that delicate infrastructure even closer to the brink.
Data appear to bear out these anecdotes.
There were 7% fewer people working in regulated child care in Vermont at the close of 2020 compared with December 2019, according to a presentation earlier this month to the Building Bright Futures state advisory council. The trend is national. Across the country, the child-care sector has 10% fewer workers compared with pre-pandemic levels, The Washington Post reported last month.
Many point out that the child-care labor crisis is part and parcel of a larger upheaval in care work. The state is seeing “significant vacancies” at its designated agencies, which deliver mental health care regionally, and schools are struggling across the board, said Morgan Crossman, the executive director of Building Bright Futures. Paraprofessionals, or instructional aides who work one-on-one with special education students, are particularly difficult to recruit and retain.
“Every sector is being impacted by workforce shortages,” Crossman said.
Between the first quarters of 2020 and 2021, 12% of the “social assistance” workforce left the field, according to data from the Vermont Department of Labor. The social assistance category includes child care employees as well as workers across the human and emergency services sectors.
Providers report that chronic workforce shortages are threatening day-to-day operations and often forcing them to temporarily shut down when teachers are out sick.
That’s having a cascading effect on the rest of the economy. In a University of Massachusetts Amherst survey of 500 Vermont households between October 2020 and February 2021, researchers found that more than 30% of parents with child-care- or preschool-aged children reported being extremely affected by disruptions to child care.
“The system is pitting parents and providers against each other, and we are acutely aware of the struggles of parents who depend on child care,” Vicky Senni, the director of the Turtle Island Children’s Center, wrote to VTDigger in mid-October. With eight teachers out that day — most with cold-like symptoms — the center had to temporarily shutter a classroom.
Heather Martin now works at a workforce development nonprofit in St. Albans, but spent 22 years in child care — first as a teacher, later as a director and finally as a consultant. In her best years, Martin said she never made more than a $45,000 salary, and that’s despite working often 50-hour weeks and going without health care or retirement benefits. She also periodically worked a second job.
Health insurance is now a “non-negotiable” for Martin, who left the field just before the pandemic, although she stressed she also moved on to pursue new challenges. But the former child care center program director and founder thinks a longstanding workforce problem is turning into a full-blown crisis in part because of pandemic-exacerbated burnout.
When Covid arrived, child care was already on deeply unsteady footing. For many working in the field, wages were so low they often couldn’t afford their own children’s child care.
“The math just doesn’t add up,” Martin said. Already thinly staffed because of poor wages and benefits, centers started leaning even more heavily on overtime to keep classrooms open when staff were out sick or quarantining.
“What’s happened in the pandemic is people are leaving because they’re working 10-and-a-half-hour days with no lunch break,” she said. “There’s no lunch break with no health care.”
Still, Martin emphasized that no one thing can be said to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“They are leaving because they cannot afford child care for their own children and need wages and benefits that support their own families,” she said. “Program administrators can’t permanently raise wages and benefits without a long-term, predictable revenue stream.”
There is hope on the horizon. The federal reconciliation bill championed by congressional Democrats and President Biden could bring “once in a century” investments into Vermont’s pre-kindergarten and child care infrastructure, Crossman told state lawmakers Wednesday.
But while early learning has thus far survived every round of cuts Biden and congressional leaders have agreed to in a bid to get the spending package across the finish line, the fate of the bill remains in question.
by Lola Duffort