The hiring crisis in America is hitting child care centers particularly hard.
Across the country, more than 10% of child care workers have left the industry during the pandemic. Early on, they were driven out by temporary program closures and furloughs. Now, the industry is weathering wage competition.
Nationwide, the average child care worker earns $12.24 per hour, far less than K-12 teachers. And in this competitive hiring market, other industries are raising wages and adding benefits to attract workers.
"This developmental time for children is the most critical in the human life cycle, and yet we're competing against other minimum wage jobs," National Association for the Education of Young Children CEO Rhian Allvin said. "If you can make more money with a much less demanding job -- and I'm talking about mixing milkshakes at a fast-food restaurant -- then what's the incentive?"
Federal pandemic relief goes only so far
The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March, spent billions to boost wages and keep the child care industry afloat, but several programs say the funds went only so far.
Kara Turner is the founder of Primary Colors, an early education business in Durham, North Carolina. She used relief funds to raise her staff's wages more than a dollar per hour, but she still can't find candidates.
Her staff has shrunk 45%, forcing her to cut student capacity in half.
"It's almost like the workforce is dried up," Turner said. "It's very scary. I don't know what is going to happen."
Federal funds helped Nurtury raise wages a dollar an hour, but Martin Ramos, a Nurtury teacher, still works a second job at Home Depot.
"I've been living paycheck to paycheck," Ramos said. "And I was getting behind on my bills."
With the staff shortage at Nurtury worsening, it's now taking 15% fewer students.
"They may sit on the waitlist for the better part of 2022," Perille said.
Impact on working women
Across the US, roughly 10% of child care programs have closed, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Others are downsizing, and many parents are seeing prices rise and waitlists grow.
"And parents, predominately women, can't go back to work," Allvin said.
A recent survey found 84% of parents feel overwhelmed by the cost of child care and 20% have quit jobs because of it.
The average annual cost of child care nationwide is more than $10,000 per kid, according to Child Care Aware of America. For the average couple, that's roughly 10% of their income. For single parents, it's 35%.
Reshonna Reynolds became a stay-at-home mom when her son was born last year. She was making less than $40,000 per year in Seattle.
"The child care costs were more than we ... were paying in rent," Reynolds said. "So I decided, hey, I have to quit my job."
She and her husband are now trying to find day care so she can get back to work, but the waitlists are up to two years long.
"We can't find any child care," she said.
Nearly 3 million women, including hundreds of thousands of mothers, are still out of the workforce because of the pandemic.
"And it's really important in terms of the jobs recovery going forward," ADP Chief Economist Nela Richardson said. "The US is losing trillions of dollars when women are not fully participants in the labor market."
In Arizona alone, a study by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that child care issues are costing the state $1.8 billion each year in "untapped potential."
"Women can't fully participate in the labor market as long as there are these uncertainties about their child care infrastructure," Richardson said.
President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill -- which passed the House in November but whose future is uncertain in the Senate -- would invest nearly $400 billion in child care, boosting worker wages, offering universal free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and guaranteeing that middle-class families pay no more than 7% of their incomes on child care.
"Parents can't pay more. Early childhood educators can't earn any less. And so it's going to continue to take significant public funding in order to fix this problem," Allvin said.
Just look at Reynolds and the career she left.
"I was a preschool teacher and I had that job for 15 years," she said. "I loved it. It was great, but I could not afford the cost of child care."
She's an early childhood educator, feeling stuck at home, needed in the classroom now more than ever.
"If you want us to pour into your children, you've got to give us what we need," she said.
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