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Jan. 25, 2022

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Clark County, Southwest Washington child care in crisis

In wake of pandemic closures, day care centers struggle to find staff as families are challenged by costs

By , Columbian staff writer
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Julian Gomez, 5, left, works with teacher Sandy Becker, red mask, as he learns the letters of the alphabet at Jack and Jill House on Thursday morning. The day care is one of Clark County's 86 licensed child care centers.
Julian Gomez, 5, left, works with teacher Sandy Becker, red mask, as he learns the letters of the alphabet at Jack and Jill House on Thursday morning. The day care is one of Clark County's 86 licensed child care centers. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In early 2020, Educational Service District 112 was serving more than twice the number of students in its child care and early education centers than it is today.

Since that time, Southwest Washington has lost a higher percentage of child care capacity than any other region in the state; about 25 percent of the region’s child care capacity has disappeared due to program closures since 2020, according to ChildCare Aware of Washington.

The child care industry is suffering from many sides, with centers not being able to compensate staff well, thus having employees fleeing the industry. Families are already struggling to pay what the centers charge for care, causing issues for the families and their employers. A state program and federal proposal aim to alleviate the issues.

Closures

Prior to the pandemic, ESD 112, which runs more than 300 local programs, was operating 40 early education and child care centers in Southwest Washington. Then the pandemic hit, forcing the closure of 33 locations; more than 200 staff were laid off. The number of programs has been built back up to 20 centers in the region, and ESD 112 was forced to permanently eliminate the unsubsidized spaces offered in its centers for kids and babies under 5 years old. Instead of serving 2,200 kids like it was pre-pandemic, it’s serving less than a thousand.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Jodi Wall, executive director for early care and education at ESD 112.

The problem now is not a statewide quarantine; it’s a massive workforce crisis. The district can’t open any more before- and after-school care centers because it doesn’t have the staff.

“We have about 250 school-aged families on a wait list,” said Wall.

But finding staff can be difficult because child care workers are not compensated well, Wall said, adding they make less than dog groomers.

Wages

As of 2020, the average hourly wage for child care workers in the Portland-Vancouver metro area was $15.18, with an average annual wage of $31,580, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual wage across all industries in the metro area was $61,860.

Still, the centers can’t charge families any more.

“Families can’t afford to pay more, but (child care) businesses can’t operate on the revenue they’re getting from family pay,” said Wall.

What families can pay is not enough to cover costs and provide a competitive compensation package compared to other industries.

“It’s just expensive to provide high-quality child care and it’s more than families can afford to pay,” she said. “We have kind of a broken system.”

Many of the child care workers have become overwhelmed in their jobs since the pandemic struck, said Kelli Bohanon, director of early learning programs at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

“What we’re hearing from the field across the state is burnout,” she said. “The pandemic really did its work and people are burned out.”

During the statewide quarantine, many facilities were shut down, and people leaned into other jobs that were more stable, she said.

The workforce crisis became more obvious as centers began hiring over the summer, but not every center is having staffing issues. It hasn’t been a problem for Jack and Jill House in Hazel Dell, but it has still struggled through the pandemic.

“We’re very, very low,” said Tina Andrews, director of the center, adding that Jack and Jill has 15 students enrolled but is licensed for 48. “We have been having problems ever since the pandemic started.”

Parents have reported having to pull their children from the day care center because they are no longer working or are working from home. Some parents say they’ve lost their jobs and haven’t been able to bring their kids back yet, and a couple of parents have said they had to pull their kids from the school because they couldn’t afford it.

That’s the case for Rosalie Johnson, the owner of Jack and Jill House, who said her day care is one of the cheapest in Vancouver, charging just $800 a month for full-time care.

Affordability

The average price for full-time child care in Clark County is $917, compared to $939 statewide. That’s 16 percent of the county’s average household income for a family with a child under 6, according to a report from ChildCare Aware of America.

“Affordability is a huge, enormous issue. There are people paying more for child care than they make in a wage, so obviously that is not a sustainable model,” said Julia Maglione, director of communications for Workforce Southwest Washington. The organization released a study at the end of 2020, examining the effects the child care industry has had on local businesses.

Accessibility is also an issue for employees.

“We were short on child care before the pandemic hit,” said Maglione. “Now you can’t even find child care if you wanted it, let alone at an affordable price.”

Clark County has a number of “child care deserts,” areas with a low number of facilities as compared to the surrounding population, according to the American Center for Progress. There are 86 licensed child care centers, 87 licensed family child care homes and 28 licensed school-age programs in the county, according to the state department of children, youth and families. Meanwhile, the county’s population was more than half a million in 2020.

Access

Since schools have opened, it’s alleviated some of the time conflicts for parents who need to stay home to take care of the children instead of work, but issues still arise when schools close down due to a COVID outbreak.

In those situations, “parents don’t necessarily have a lot of warning, and so now your employees have to be at home again,” Maglione said. “Companies now are seeing very dramatic impacts that the lack of child care is having.”

For instance, maybe an employee can find child care, but they don’t make enough to pay their bills, their child care costs and still meet their other financial needs.

“You have employees, who it’s cheaper for them to quit their jobs and stay home than it is to pay for child care,” she said.

A Workforce Southwest Washington study from December of last year looked at how child care issues impacted businesses in Cowlitz County. The survey found 18.4 percent of the more than 4,400 employees surveyed had had challenges with child care in the 24 months leading up to the survey.

“The story is pretty much the same in Clark County — lack of available child care, lack of affordable child care.”

The organization is talking with businesses in Southwest Washington and trying to get more companies on board with being part of a solution.

“It’s not just one group that can solve this. It’s such a large issue. It impacts everyone — you’re a business, you’re a worker — that impacts our economy and our community. This is something we all need to come together and address.”

Government help

There are state and federal programs aiming to alleviate the economic issues surrounding child care.

In October, the state opened a new program, born out of the Fair Start for Kids Act passed in May, that expanded eligibility for child care subsidies to families earning up to 60 percent of the Washington average income. It also lowered co-payments for families who receive state child care assistance to no more than 7 percent of a family’s monthly income.

“Call volume went up in September and October as these changes became known,” said Allison Krutsinger, director of government affairs and community engagement at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. “Many families who called and were learning about their co-pay change — who may previously have been eligible but couldn’t afford it, so opted not to use it — were telling us things like, ‘I can pay rent and keep my kid in child care now.’ ‘I can keep my lights on and know my kid is safe during the day.’ ”

Meanwhile, the federal Build Back Better legislation would make more funds available to states that meet certain requirements. Those include mandating increased pay for child care workers, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, subsidies for day cares that provide free care for low-income families and limit what most families pay to 7 percent of monthly income. However, the bill doesn’t offer guidance to states on how to implement these policies. The spending bill has passed the House of Representatives but has not yet been voted on in the Senate.

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