[caption id="attachment_218087" align="alignleft" width="225"] Cinnamon Elliot is sometimes accompanied by her daughter, Journey, on Zoom calls for work these days. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CINNAMON ELLIOT[/caption]
Cinnamon Elliot has been looking for child care for her daughter, Journey, ever since she was born, if not longer. At 10 months old, Journey is starting to crawl and she needs more attention. Now, Cinnamon and her husband have “shift work.” He watches their daughter when he’s off work and Cinnamon, who was recently promoted to the chief talent officer at Dover Federal Credit Union, works at home two or three days a week.“I call a new facility each week and I schedule visits when I can. No one is adding anyone at this point, and I’m on three or four waitlists,” Elliot said. “But you want to keep your career and your home life as separate as you can, because it’s not fair to Journey. I really didn’t really understand this was a crisis until I became a part of it.”On the other side of the crisis, Lisa Ratliff and Shannon Mercer recently decided to reduce the operating hours of the Little School at Kids Cottage in Dover, starting Jan. 1. When COVID-19 happened, enrollment at the preschool and daycare dropped from 162 children to 15, due to many parents now working from home or out of work altogether. The center was required to stay open for essential workers though.In the fall of 2020, the Little School re-enrolled to full capacity, but with a different population of children. But while the kids came back, the staffing needs have changed. For example, a class could have a few 4-year-olds in diapers, which means a classroom would need three teachers, not two.“We’ve resisted reducing our hours, but we don’t have enough staff to continue covering the longer day. We just can’t do it anymore,” Ratliff said. “We have been lucky to retain some staff and find some new staff, but this year has been particularly difficult because we’re seeing children that have greater needs than they had pre-pandemic.”‘Women’s work’Since February 2020, the labor force for women 20 years old and older dropped by roughly 2 million – about twice the deficit for men in the same age bracket, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.Some are returning to work, but as office settings embrace hybrid work models, many women are struggling to find child care in order to re-enter the workforce at all.In Delaware, 68% of women with a child 6 years old or younger were in the workforce between January and April 2021 compared to 93% of fathers in the same time period,according to a report conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Companies are struggling to find workers for many jobs to wholly staff up, and child care is no exception.“Child care has been seen as women’s work for a while, and the notion has only grown since women entered the workforce in the 1970s and the 1980s. Most centers are run by women who employ women,” said Jamie Schneider, the president Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children, an organization that advocates for high-quality child care and for children from birth to 8 years old. “Today, there’s so many job opportunities right now and none of the stress of working in child care, so you’re seeing this mass exodus in the field,” she added.
[caption id="attachment_218089" align="alignnone" width="1024"] The Little School at Kids' Cottage owners Shannon Mercer and Lisa Ratliff invested in a new building in 2009, including a indoor playground that is popular with children. They have been faced with some staffing issues, as children are more needier now, and require more staff in classrooms. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
She works hard for the moneyStaffing has always been the biggest challenge for child care facilities, as employees who need to be certified at certain licensed facilities are bound to staff-student ratios, depending on the age group. Certifications can be obtained through Delaware’s Pathways programs or other college tracks, or through 120-hour courses.Advocates say the biggest challenge to recruitment and retention is the low average wage. Even before the pandemic, the average child care worker earned $11.65 an hour. In Delaware, child care workers were paid an average salary of $23,440 in 2019. That same year, the average Delawarean salary was $54,370, according to a study releasedby the RoDel Foundation, a state education advocacy group.With most businesses, the biggest expense is staffing, and child care is no exception. Statewide, total operating costs ranged from $50,000 to $1.6 million at child care centers with staffing costing between $20,000 and $1.3 million, according to the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services’ 2021 cost-of-care study.Delaware also offers 50% to 60% reimbursement for children under the age of 12 who fall under the designated poverty line. But when the pandemic hit, the state limited capacity on child care centers to classes of 15, and offered enhanced reimbursement for each empty spot per month. “Thank God for the state and the federal government, because they saved us [last year],” Ratliff said. “We have been able to remain financially stable due to funding such as the Enhanced Reimbursements for early childhood providers, the Delaware Relief Grant, the Early Childhood Stabilization Grant and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). These programs supported us through the pandemic crisis and continue to support us today as we find our new normal.”To address child care center needs, Gov. John Carney has earmarked $24 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to child care stabilization grants, on top of the $66 million allocated last year. Those grants may help hundreds of workers in centers in Delaware, with facilities using them as a way to hire and retain staff by raising wages or offering bonuses.
[caption id="attachment_218085" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Across Delaware, small businesses are dealing with a workforce shortage. In child care, that means operating hours are reduced and classrooms are closed - leaving working parents in the lurch. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
The band aidBut that one-time state funding is not enough to solve what Schneider calls a broken system. Monthly child care costs for a child between birth and age 5 in Delaware is around $918, according to the RoDel study. Annual costs are $13,000 per year, or 20% of the median household income in Delaware.“We don’t need to sugarcoat it. It’s a system where my teachers only make money if I raise rates, and parents can only afford so much, and I can only afford to pay so much,” she said. “Often, these positions are highly-skilled and often lack benefits and paid time off, unlike any other minimum-wage job I can think of.”Looking to the future, some legislators are pushing Carney to invest $50 million in child care in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget, raising the reimbursement rates closer to market rates. In the short-term the ARPA funding may help with “band aid” solutions, but Ratliff said the need is much greater than one-time funding programs.“I want to see programs implemented that the state can sustain over time. If a grant program benefits 3 to 5 year-olds for two years, I’m not sure how that helps in the long term,” she said. “If we add resources and focus on the birth to 5 age group and begin valuing early childhood teachers, I think our children would look different in third grade. If the Federal Government offers funding, my hope is that the Delaware Department of Education will see the value of early childhood education and invest in our children’s future at a much earlier age.”The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has partnered with RoDel, the Philadelphia Fed and the Delaware Department of Education to study issues facing the child care sector last year, and has been hosting listening sessions across the state. Another study and list of resources will be coming soon, and the DSCC chamber expects to focus more on solutions in the next year.For Schneider, she hopes many businesses can start to be part of the solution when it comes to the child care crisis, whether it’s offering a family savings account as part of the benefits or offering child care reimbursements to offset costs up to $500 a month.“But the biggest piece is making sure the business community supports the legislative efforts that we’re advocating for, like the reimbursement rates. If we’re getting more funding, that rolls down to how centers pay teachers,” she said. “In many cases, those teachers are also receiving government benefits for their own families. There’s a reason why so many providers are on the front lines of this.”