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Child care staff often make less money than retail workers. That’s causing staff shortages and long waitlists at daycares

By Lizzy McLellan Ravitch, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: May 5, 2024, 6:00am

At Bright Little Scholars’ two Philadelphia locations, director and pre-K teacher Mercedes Fleet employed 21 different people throughout 2023. She only has five staff positions.

“It’s a never-ending cycle” of turnover, Fleet said.

Fleet pays $15 per hour to her two aides and $20 to a pre-K teacher with a bachelor’s degree, and whatever is left to herself, which is usually around $20 per hour or a little less.

Fleet started a third location last year, but was forced to close it temporarily because of her staffing struggles. “I would need to hire two more [people] to staff it, then two floaters to go between the three (locations),” Fleet said. If she can’t reopen soon, she may need to find a way out of the lease.

Child care workers and preschool teachers are two of the most in-demand jobs right now in Pennsylvania, and that demand is expected to grow at a clip through the end of this decade. They’re also two of the lowest-paid jobs.

Care providers and industry experts say the staffing shortage in early childhood education and child care will only get worse unless the Pennsylvania government steps in to provide more funding, specifically money that would help those centers pay their staff. Without that assistance, more centers will downsize classes or close entirely, and wait lists for care will only get longer.

This problem is already costing the Pennsylvania economy more than $6.65 billion annually, due to working parents calling out or losing their employment due to inadequate child care, according to a study by Council for a Strong America and the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission.

It’s also leaving parents with unsavory options. For some, it means leaving the workforce. For others, it could mean sacrificing children’s safety.

If staffing shortages are allowed to continue and worsen, licensed child care at regulated facilities will be out of reach to more people. Those who cannot go without work may resort to centers where the child-to-teacher ratio is too high, or other safety rules are ignored, said Tyrone Scott, director of government and external affairs at First Up, an early education advocacy organization.

“We’re heading for dangerous child care,” Scott said.

At Kinder Academy, which serves over 500 children aged six weeks to 13 years, multiple age groups have waiting lists. Before the pandemic started, Kinder had over 100 employees and planned to open a sixth location, director Leslie Spina said.

Now, Kinder Academy has a staff of around 85, and “one person being out can throw off everything at a facility.” The new location did open, but another site closed, leaving five total.

“We can’t in good conscience open a room if we don’t have a teacher who we know will stay,” Spina said. “We have to find a way to attract and keep people in the field.”

Pay for child care workers and early childhood teachers

Noemi Torres is the lead teacher for a classroom of 3- to 5-year-olds at Kinder. She makes about $17 per hour and has a bachelor’s degree in education.

“We’re sometimes (seen) as babysitters for the children,” said Torres, who has taught young children for over 30 years, including three at Kinder.

“I could go to the (Philadelphia School) District, but I don’t want to,” said Torres. “I stay here in this field because I love it. It’s my passion.”

The average wage for early childhood teachers is less than $13 per hour, according to a 2023 report by Children First and Start Strong PA, based on 30,000 wage records from Pennsylvania providers.

Fleet and Spina’s centers pay better than that, they both said, but hiring has gotten harder in the past few years as entry-level pay increased in other industries, like fast food and retail. Fleet said entry-level applicants to Bright Little Scholars are often seeking $20 or more as a starting wage, an amount she can barely afford to pay herself as a director and teacher with a college education.

Child care workers and preschool teachers are on a list of high-priority occupations — jobs for which demand is expected to grow significantly in the next few years — in Philadelphia and all four Pennsylvania counties that surround it.

In all five counties, it’s the lowest-paid job on that list, making about $33,000 annually on average and about $23,000 at the entry level.

Preschool teachers are also on that list in all five counties, and their average salaries are only a little higher. Making about $37,000 on average and about $28,000 at the entry level, it’s the lowest-paid high-priority position in Southeastern Pennsylvania that requires an associate’s degree.

To attract staff, Spina offers help with higher education expenses, and a significant discount on Kinder Academy care for children of staff members. “That benefit is huge, but it’s not cash,” Spina said, explaining that most employees look for a public school job when their degree is finished or their children start kindergarten.

“We help everyone get their degrees, then they leave. They have to,” Spina said. “I can’t say to people ‘stay with us because we’re friends’ when they could make double going to the school district.”

Unlike other employers, many child care centers weren’t able to adjust to the post-COVID labor market in real time. They can’t employ a smaller staff and bring in the same revenue because of strictly regulated child-to-staff ratios. Raising prices for families is not an option either, as families already struggle to afford care.

“If we don’t have a lot of students, we won’t have a job,” said Torres.

In Philadelphia, the typical cost of infant care is more than 22% of the median family income. In the surrounding suburban counties, where incomes are higher, it’s still around 13%.

“Child care providers are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Steve Doster, Pennsylvania director of Council for a Strong America. “They can’t just raise their rates because the families that rely on them are already challenged to pay what they’re paying.”

How to pay workers more

That leaves one other avenue: increased government funding.

While state lawmakers recently passed enhanced tax credits for parents, that’s not going to address the staffing shortage directly or quickly enough, experts say.

“We could give people 100% tax credit right now and they still couldn’t get into an infant or toddler program” because those programs are too understaffed to take more children, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First.

If nothing is done, the labor shortage in the child care industry will only worsen. More classrooms and centers will be forced to close, and more parents will have to leave the workforce to care for their children, advocates said.

“The labor market is begging for women to come back post-COVID. … That’s not possible if there’s not infant and toddler care,” Cooper said.

But increasing parents’ presence in the workforce is unlikely to happen without wage support for child care providers, said Scott, of First Up. With monthly child care costs sometimes close to or exceeding housing costs, it can feel financially irresponsible to work and pay for child care rather than staying home with children and taking government assistance, he said.

“There’s only so much families can pay,” Scott said.

Advocates are calling on the state of Pennsylvania to increase reimbursement rates for centers whose customers use state subsidies to pay for care. They also want state funding for child care worker bonuses, which have been utilized in states including Alabama, Tennessee and Illinois.

But those are just incremental steps, Pennsylvania advocates said. In the long term, larger systemic changes are needed. Early childhood teacher salaries need to be commensurate with K-12 salaries, Cooper said.

“That’s going to cost a lot of money,” Cooper noted, but anyone with an interest in the local economy should be motivated to make that happen. “We can’t afford anything that will cause the labor force to shrink.”

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is historically low, at 3.4%, meaning that most people who want jobs have them. The state’s labor force participation rate — the percentage of potential workers who are employed or looking for a job — is inching back toward pre-COVID levels, but not quite there yet.

“If businesses are to maintain the workforce, they need both moms and dads” working, said Doster. “The reduced capacity of child care is really hampering that ability.”

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