As the U.S. job market continues to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic, the child care industry has lagged behind.
The sector has lost about 9.7% of its workforce compared to pre-pandemic levels, or about 102,400 employees between February 2020 and last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Marcelo Candia spends all day teaching a classroom full of 4-year-old children in northern Virginia -- then walks across the street to work in a grocery store bakery for four more hours.
It's the reality faced by so many workers in the child care industry, where low pay and other factors have created a labor crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I love what I do," Candia, a father who is also working toward an associate's degree, told ABC News. "I come here with a lot of energy. I go out of the school when I'm finished my period here with a boost of energy."
'This is unheard of'
Leslie Spina, who runs five early childhood education centers in Philadelphia, told ABC News she continues to face staffing shortages."
"We're about 22% short-staffed right now," Spina, the executive director of Kinder Academy, said. "This is unheard of."
At Candia's center, ACCA Child Development Center in Annandale, Virginia, the shortage of workers has meant fewer kids can receive care.
Low wages drive staffing shortage, experts say
The most significant factor driving the staffing crisis is low pay for child care workers, according to experts.
A child care worker in the United States made an average of just $13.31 per hour, or $27,680 per year, in 2021, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"It's physically mentally, emotionally hard work, and it's one of the lowest paid jobs in every single state in the country," said Lea Austin, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, at the University of California, Berkeley.
"We're not paying what Target pays," Spina said. "We're not paying what Chick-fil-A pays -- because we can't afford to."
Many teachers are also drawn to publicly funded K-12 schools, which typically offer better wages, vacation time and other benefits. Center directors say that can lead to a brain drain at day cares as more experienced workers leave.
Many day care teachers want to stay in the industry but cannot afford to provide for their own families, educators and center directors told ABC News.