Oct 25, 2021

Vt. child care facilities say staffing at breaking point

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont child care providers say the state is facing a crisis when it comes to staffing. They say the system, which was already strained before the pandemic, is now at a breaking point.

There were fewer youngsters than usual at Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier Friday. “At about 5 a.m. I got a couple text messages from teachers who weren’t going to be able to make it,” said Vicky Senni, the center’s director. She says six other teachers were already out, most over COVID concerns. “Thirty percent of our staff have been out every day for the last month.”

Senni says she was forced to close a classroom and some parents woke up to news that they didn’t have child care. “We put them in quite a bit of a scramble. Everything that happens here and those kinds of necessities have an enormous ripple effect on the community, especially in a school as large as ours,” said.

It could be larger too. Turtle Island is licensed for 90 children but right now only has 68 enrolled. “We are far under capacity,” Senni said. “We have a very long waiting list.” But she says with an average of six people out every day for the past four weeks she can’t be at capacity and even had to cut hours. Compounding the COIVD challenges -- she’s had jobs posted for months and can’t fill them. “I started tracking the reason why applicants weren’t following through and most of them just found better-paying jobs.”

Offering her workers higher pay just passes the cost along to families, who already are struggling to afford child care. “It doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. Parents are paying too much and we don’t have it within our budget to pay people more,” Senni said.

Child care advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids says the average child care worker makes about $34,000 a year, which translates into less than $15 an hour, often without benefits. When we did a quick search on some other hiring sites to see what kinds of other jobs were offering $15 an hour, we found: A sales associate at LL Bean; Seasonal jobs at Sugarbush; A hotel housekeeper; A dishwasher and line cook. All those jobs don’t require continuing education and don’t come with student loan debt.

“It is one of the lowest-paid bachelor degree programs, if not the lowest bachelor degree program in the country. So, it’s really hard to grow a workforce and a pipeline in an occupation that has been severely underfunded and under-invested in,” said Sherry Carlson with Let’s Grow Kids.

And it shows. Senni is part of a group of 20 child care center directors in Washington County that are looking to hire. Five have more than three vacancies to fill, four are operating at reduced capacity, and 16 have reduced hours or days. “We realized we weren’t alone. People are having an impossible time getting applicants for any of their job postings,” Senni said.

Vermont’s Child Development Division says they’re aware of how hard it is to hire and how many workers are leaving for other jobs. “I think what goes through my head is what can we do to bring people back into this program,” said Interim Deputy Commissioner Miranda Gray. She says they’re working with providers to allow more time for staff to complete the required classes to stay licensed and are giving more flexibility on combining groups of kids in mornings and evenings. “I personally have appreciated all of the outreach. I’ve heard from a number of programs who are asking -- and not only asking but providing solutions -- telling me exactly this is what would be helpful.”

There’s also some help from COVID relief money. This month, the division announced $29.3 million in grants for regulated providers. They can use that to hire staff or give bonuses or raises.

But providers like Turtle Island say the problem is they also need that money to pay for pandemic-related costs and maintenance, and the bonuses they’re able to offer with what’s left don’t add up to much.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: You called this a Bandaid, why?

Vicky Senni: Because it’s not a long-term solution... people are really struggling. People are at a breaking point. Some people are telling us they’re not sure they’re going to make it next week... it might get us through the winter, it might.

Unlike some other industries struggling to hire right now, the struggle for Vermont’s regulated child care businesses is pre-pandemic. Between the end of 2018 and 2019, 653 fewer people were licensed to work directly with kids year to year. Between 2019 and 2020, another 544 dropped off. And so far this year, another 246 have left.

What Senni wants to see long-term is something like a publicly-funded child care system. Investments are coming. The Child Development Division says there are tuition reimbursement programs to encourage people to enter the child care workforce. And a bill lawmakers passed last session starts the process of overhauling the system to make it more affordable for families and providers, but that will take years.

Click here to see this story on WCAX's website. 

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