Help Wanted: America’s childcare crisis fueled by worker shortages in daycare centers

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Jessica Duckett’s Teddy Bear Day Care and Preschool is feeling the effects of the nation’s hiring crunch firsthand. At her Fairfax, Virginia location, Duckett said she is as many as six employees short and has only 60 of a possible 109 children enrolled, simply because she’s not staffed to care for them.

Duckett said sometimes applicants don’t even bother showing up. Others are not qualified or seeking wages she can’t afford if she wants to keep costs down for parents. She’s offering wages on average that range from $13 to $14, free childcare for staff, and benefits at her two locations.

“There isn’t really a hiring situation,” Duckett said. “We are interviewing people that don’t really qualify. People are applying but not showing up to interviews, people are coming to interviews agreeing to take the job, but not following through with background checks.”

The lack of child care workers is creating a larger ripple effect in the overall economy, keeping parents out of jobs, exacerbating broader shortages being felt in nearly every industry. Affordability is another problem for many parents, with some industry advocates looking to President Joe Biden’s economic plan that would provide government funding for preschool and daycare as a potential boost.

A recent survey of more than 7,500 respondents from childcare centers and homes across the country found worker shortages in nearly every state, with some as high as 90 percent. Many said as a result they are taking fewer children on for care, according to an August nationwide survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

“If I enroll more children to pay for more staff and I increase the pay, [for some] people still it’s not enough, people still don’t apply, people still walk out. And then I have children that don’t have a caregiver, and that puts the families in a bad spot. So it’s almost like a double-edged sword,” Duckett said.

The jobs report released Friday showed a mixed picture with nonfarm payrolls increasing just 210,000 in November, though the unemployment rate fell sharply to 4.2% from 4.6%.

The data from NAEYC shows wages are a huge issue—as many as 80 percent of workers in certain states are citing wages as a reason they’ve left the child care industry. Some are leaving the field in search of opportunities at bigger companies like Amazon or Starbucks.

Others are opting to move into the school system, filling roles as teacher’s assistants and beyond as a labor crunch is being felt there as well, according to Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association.

“It’s really hard work. It’s very demanding— think of yourself spending eight hours a day with 10 three-year olds, and what kind of physicality that requires. Then there’s the mental part of it, just keeping up with the behaviors and the emotions, which have really been difficult this last year, because of the stress in most homes,” Lehnhoff said of the daily toll the job takes on workers remaining in the industry.

And even beyond the struggle for workers, childcare is prohibitively expensive for many parents across the country.

Lehnhoff said the average ratio at licensed centers is one caregiver to every four children who are infant-aged and one for every 10 once they reach kindergarten. Families can seek more than 50 hours a week of care, meaning one full-time worker cannot cover the classroom for such a long day.

Another staff member is needed to cover the extra hours. That, coupled with facility rentals, food and supplies is expensive for centers to run. Stimulus money will help to cover some costs for centers through 2024, but more will be needed to lower costs for families and attract enough workers.

President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda has a major allocation of money that Lehnhoff said would be a major win if the plan comes to fruition—$400 billion for childcare including funding for licensed facilities and lowering costs for families, as well as an investment in universal pre-K.

“It would give the middle class an opportunity to receive some support. Many of our middle class parents have been driven into unlicensed childcare and typical babysitting situations. So there is no regulation, there’s no education,” Lenhoff said.

While the industry waits to see if the administration’s funding plan becomes a reality, Duckett said the thing that keeps her up at night after the last year is her staff’s mental health at a time when centers across the country are stretched thin.

“March 2022, will be two years that we’ve been doing this. And that’s a long time to be kind of like under duress. And you’re looking for that moment to breathe. And I’m not sure that we’ve had that moment in a long time,” Duckett said.

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