White River Junction child care facility closing amid staffing shortages
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — After 30 years of providing care for children in the heart of the Upper Valley, the Green Mountain Children’s Center in White River Junction will close next month because of a staffing shortage, the nonprofit child care’s board told families this week.
The closing on Nov. 24 for infants and toddlers, and Dec. 10 for older children, marks the loss of 59 licensed spots in a region that is already short of the placements working families need.
On Thursday, the board hosted a virtual meeting with parents and employees to announce the decision to close, said Julie Pelton, chairwoman of the nonprofit GMCC’s board and parent to a 4-year-old at GMCC now. The meeting became emotional, she said.
It “feels a bit like a family falling apart,” said Pelton, who lives in West Hartford and works in health care management.
It’s a family that has been shedding members for months, initially losing workers to other competing child care centers or nanny positions, and more recently to other industries such as retail, she said. Though GMCC has offered workers pay as high as $20 an hour, the work is hard, and under recent staffing levels, the employees who remain haven’t been able to take time off.
As of Friday, the center on Farmvu Drive in White River Junction had about 30 children enrolled and eight employees, Pelton said. She hopes to retain as many of the workers as possible through the December closing date.
“I think caregivers are getting burnt out,” she said.
Enfield resident Erin Martin, whose preschooler Desmond and toddler Gavin have attended GMCC’s Hartford location for the past 18 months since their previous child care center closed, is among the working parents left scrambling for alternative care even as other centers are experiencing similar challenges finding workers.
“It’s all still a little raw and emotional, to be honest, and none of us have plans yet,” said Martin, an engineer at Hypertherm.
GMCC is far from alone in its struggles. The Child Care Center of Norwich also recently announced it plans to close a classroom for toddlers, leaving six children in need of care elsewhere.
Closing that classroom “solved our staffing problem for now,” said Lisa Sjostrom, the Norwich center’s director. But, she added, “you never know when somebody else is going to up and leave.”
It’s a bleak picture: Child care centers are closing classrooms as they’re unable to find workers; parents can’t find caregivers for their young children; and businesses are losing employees and struggling to find new ones.
That’s the state of child care in the Upper Valley as described by child care providers, parents and business leaders during the first session of a two-part virtual symposium on the topic put on by Vital Communities on Wednesday.
During the symposium, Jenn Parker, who owns Creative Kids Adventures in Grantham, said her center, which currently provides care for the equivalent of 60 full-time children, could offer about 25 more spots if it weren’t for the staffing crunch. The center also has had to shorten hours and when employees needed a break recently, she had to close the center for a week. The center’s director is working in classrooms. If Creative Kids loses one more teacher, Parker said she’ll be forced to close a classroom, leaving 10 children without spots.
“Child care centers are facing a serious catastrophe,” Parker said.
It’s a catastrophe familiar to parents and child care providers, and was highlighted earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were closed for in-person learning and parents, especially women, left the workforce in droves.
While there are about 6,600 children in need of child care in the Upper Valley, there are just 5,071 spots at licensed or registered facilities, said Jess Carson, research assistant professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. That marks a 12% loss of providers and a 2% loss in slots since Carson’s last study in 2017.
While that might not be a huge change in number, “what that means is that there are fewer choices for families,” she said.
In addition, those numbers don’t reflect actual availability because, as Parker noted, some licensed spots can’t be filled due to staffing constraints, Carson said.
Of the providers on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley that Carson surveyed earlier this year, just 1 in 5 had any vacancies and just 1 in 20 had a spot or two for an infant. Across two counties, Orange and Windsor, there were three providers with room for four infants, Carson said.
Rebecca Owens, an associate planner for the city of Lebanon, is acutely aware of the challenges of finding care for an infant in the Upper Valley. Owens is due to return back to work from parental leave at the end of the month, but she is still seeking care for her 7-week-old son Holden.
She and her husband, who doesn’t have any parental leave, have been looking for a full-time spot for Holden since midway through her pregnancy.
When they recently heard that one center had a waitlist of more than 80 infants, the situation became “suddenly much more dire,” she said in a recorded message included as part of the symposium.
The couple do not have family nearby, nor do they have plans to take time off or reduce their workloads. At this point, the challenge is finding any care at all, regardless of cost, she said.
The stress on parents is not lost on their employers.
About three job candidates per month turn down jobs at Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Newport due to child care issues and an inability to match child care needs with shifts available at the firearm manufacturing plant, Joseph Blair, human resources director for the Newport campus, which employs 800 people, said at the Vital Communities symposium.
In some two-parent households, employees alternate shifts, which has the effect of reducing time they have to sleep and otherwise rest. As a result of the high cost of care and the difficulty finding child care, some employees have left, Blair said.
The “stress on associates has been pretty great,” he said. Sturm Ruger has also seen increased participation in the company’s employee assistance program, which offers referrals to mental health providers, he said.
Advocates and philanthropists in both states said there’s room for improvement in state and federal policies. Many parents are maxed out paying current child care rates, but centers still struggle to pay workers a decent wage, so advocates say there’s room for more investment by government, philanthropists and businesses.
Christina D’Allessandro, director for early childhood and family supports for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, noted that New Hampshire is one of just six states that don’t invest in pre-kindergarten education. In Vermont, children ages 3 to 5 qualify for 10 free hours a week of pre-K during the school year.
Though New Hampshire does offer some subsidies for child care, they are underutilized perhaps due to confusion about eligibility, she said. While the pandemic has inspired some short-term state and federal funding programs, they have not met the need, D’Allessandro said.
“We have a child care sector that is still struggling,” she said. “This investment to date only kept the doors open.”
The symposium hit home for Larissa Pyer, a 35-year-old Lebanon resident expecting her first child in January and recently joined the board of GMCC’s Hartford location.
“It was a little bit of a gut punch, the presentation,” Pyer said in a phone interview afterward.
Pyer, who works at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and her husband started looking for a child care spot before they announced their pregnancy to the wider world. They had planned to send their baby to GMCC, but now are going to tour more centers and get their names on more lists.
“We are a two-income household,” she said. “We need to continue to be. That’s the bottom line.”
After listening to the presenters, Pyer said the one thing she found hopeful was the participation of approximately 100 people from different walks of life.
Participants “all seemed to be pretty committed,” Pyer said. They understand “this is an issue that we need to do something about.”
Friday’s letter to GMCC parents offered temporary or long-term spots at GMCC’s Claremont location, which is not closing.
“We recognize that this comes at an unfortunate time in the year, and within the childcare situation in the Upper Valley,” the board wrote. “We are committed to helping families transition to new care to the best of our ability.”
Pelton, GMCC’s board chairwoman, said she is hopeful that another child care center may take over GMCC’s White River Junction location, thereby retaining the facility’s workers and the children who receive care there.
As of Friday, the board was “pursuing some conversations” with other centers, but Pelton was “not sure what’s going to come of it.”
In the meantime, Pelton is among the parents searching for care. She recently created a job posting on care.com.
“I’ve gotten no responses,” she said.
by Nora Doyle-Burr