Working parents tired of jumping through hoops for suitable child care, seeking change

Kathy Lynn Gray
For Columbus CEO
Tyra Thomas and her son Tyler.

Two years ago, Misti Norman was flooded with applicants when she advertised job openings at her Downtown Columbus child care center.

Now, she feels fortunate if even one person applies.

“We’ve been looking for a cook for three months and haven’t gotten one résumé,” says Norman, owner and executive director of Heavenly Kids Center for Learning at 404 E. Mound St.

Alas, Norman’s story is the norm, not the exception, for child care centers across the country as the pandemic grinds into its 22nd month. Her staff of 39 people has shrunk to 18 and, largely because of that, the center’s enrollment has fallen from 140 to 75. Its wait list is bulging, with 30 infants and 15 preschoolers unable to attend the highly rated school because teachers and assistants can’t be found.

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Numerous other industries, of course, are sharing in the dramatic labor force falloff, including restaurants and retailers. But the shortage in child care staffers puts a particular strain on the economy because without child care, many other workers can’t return to employment.

“It’s a conundrum,” says Mary Ann Rody, executive director of the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers. “If child care centers don’t have enough staff, they can’t accommodate families and people can’t go back to work. I believe it’s causing some of the slow recovery we’ve seen.”

A survey by the OACCP found that 91 percent of child care programs had less than three-quarters of their typical enrollment as of May, compared with only 20 percent before the pandemic, Rody says.

On the other side of the equation are working parents with young children who rely on these centers or in-home care so they can be employed. When state mandates prompted by COVID-19 shut down schools and child care facilities in March 2020, those moms and dads were left in the lurch.

Many were able to work from home because the pandemic also closed business offices, but a significant number soon found that working and simultaneously caring for young children was difficult, if not impossible.

Much of that burden has been on mothers.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of unemployed mothers living with school-age children was 1.4 million higher in January 2021 than in January 2020. A March census bureau analysis, “Moms, Work and the Pandemic,” found that the unemployment rate for those mothers was 13.9 percent in April 2020. Pre-pandemic in January 2020, the rate was significantly lower at 3.5 percent. By January 2021 as vaccines for COVID-19 were rolling out, the rate had dipped back down to 6 percent. “The pandemic has had a devastating effect on employment overall, but especially on mothers’ paid labor,” the analysis concluded.

Both parents and child care providers are facing hardship

Some parents, such as single-mother Chardonnay Byers of the East Side, had to take a leave of absence from work to care for their children. Byers, a preschool teacher at Heavenly Kids, stayed home to care for son Caimere, 7, who was a kindergartner at the time of the shutdown. Caimere’s school, South Columbus Preparatory Academy, shut its doors before child care centers were ordered closed.

Since then, Byers has worked off and on at Heavenly Kids. In the summer of 2020, she returned to work because she could bring Caimere and his brother, 4-year-old James, to the center. But come fall, Caimere was in virtual first grade and Byers was again staying home, juggling a call-center job while helping Caimere and entertaining James.

For a time, the boys’ father helped out, but mostly Byers has had to support her family with the $12-an-hour wage she receives at both the school and the call center, plus some unemployment checks.

She knows that, in some ways, she’s lucky. Heavenly Kids has been flexible with her job—she recently took maternity leave to stay home with her daughter, Lynnae, who was born in September—and James’ child care is subsidized. One of her friends had to quit work after having twins because she couldn’t afford child care.

Kelly Fuller, vice president of talent and workforce development for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, says that while child care has long been a sticking point for working parents, the pandemic has made the problem more pronounced.

“I consult with our members regularly about their issues, and while child care always has been an issue, it’s been among the top five for businesses since January 2020,” she says. Fuller says finding workers continues to be a complication businesses struggle with, and child care is one of the drivers.

But a lack of openings for new students at child care centers isn’t the sole reason some parents haven’t returned to work, Fuller says. One hurdle, especially for those who use public transportation, is that good care is too far from home. Others were afraid to expose their young children to others until vaccination was available, or they have family members who are at high risk of contracting the disease.

Fuller says she hasn’t heard of businesses luring workers with on-site child care. “But more are looking at some sort of subsidy as part of their benefits package,” she says.

Many are offering sign-on bonuses and higher wages to attract employees. But those perks aren’t an option for most child care programs.

“We really are stuck”

Norman has increased pay slightly, paying $12 to $13 an hour for an assistant teacher and $16 for a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree. To come up with the additional money, she’s shrunk her administrative staff from seven to three people. But despite running a center that has the top Step Up To Quality rating from the state, she still can’t compete with warehouses and call centers that are paying $18 or more an hour, or with jobs that allow people to work from home.

Increasing tuition so teachers earn more isn’t an option either, she says. Ninety percent of the students at Heavenly Kids receive subsidized government tuition, which is a fixed amount.

Gina Ginn, who operates Columbus Early Learning Centers in Linden and on the Near East Side, had 74 staff members before the pandemic when she had four locations. Now, with five centers, she has 56 staff members, and enrollment is at just 60 to 70 percent of capacity because she can’t find teachers, assistants and aides to replace the ones she’s lost.

Gina Ginn, Early Learning Centers

Some left to work at warehouses or call centers, some are taking care of their own children and others started side businesses. “They were too scared to work outside the home, and the government subsidies and their side hustles gave them the flexibility to be at home for their families,” she says.

Ginn was able to hire a few new staffers in October, but has had to put more money into training and credentialing them than in the past. On top of that, she’s had to squeeze money from her budget for hand sanitizer, masks, disinfectant wipes and other such items, which continue to get more expensive. Protective gloves, for example, have tripled in price, she says.

Gina Ginn photographed with students in Da'Sha Delley's three to five year old class during free play time.

Like Heavenly Kids, Columbus Early Learning Centers has a large number of students whose child care costs are subsidized at a static rate by the government. “We can’t ask the private-pay families to take on the increased costs for everyone, because care will become unaffordable and they’ll leave,” Ginn says.  “We really are stuck with being able to pay only a certain amount to staff.”

Staffing challenges in Franklin County child care centers 

According to The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, 98 percent of U.S. jobs pay more than child care. In Ohio, the average pay for workers in the industry is $10.67 an hour, according to Action for Children, a central Ohio child care resource and referral agency.

A new survey by the agency found that 44 percent of child care programs in Franklin County are short-staffed, and their enrollment is about 60 percent of capacity. For a provider to be financially healthy, it needs an enrollment of at least 80 percent of capacity, says Eric Karolak, Action for Children’s CEO.

The drop in enrollment isn’t occurring because children are spread out among more centers, Karolak says. In fact, while the number of child care providers normally grows up to 10 percent a year in central Ohio, it fell by 3 percent from February 2020 to February 2021. More recent research shows that the overall number of local providers—including home-based programs—fell by 136 from February 2020 to October 2021.

For mother and child care worker Tyra Thomas of the Far East Side, the pandemic has been a wake-up call. Thomas, who was a director at Jelly Bean Junction when the pandemic began, had to furlough her employees when the shutdown occurred. Once they reopened, she struggled to find and keep staff and had to reduce enrollment, upsetting parents who needed child care.

Although she had an aunt who took care of her son, Tyler, 10, while he was in virtual school, she realized that her long days at work were robbing her of valuable time with him. So she bought a home, quit her job and started Gifts Within Learning Center, an at-home child care provider, in September.

“The pandemic let me know that you don’t always know how much time you have left in this world, and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my son,” says Thomas, a single mother. “I feel like when I was working in a center, I missed the first 10 years of his life.”

Now she’s home every day when Tyler finishes fifth-grade classes, and she’s filled five of her six enrollment slots. While her income has suffered a bit, she’s happy to be back caring for children directly rather than being an administrator. “Career-wise, the pandemic kind of opened my eyes,” she says. “It was a joy to work at the center with everyone’s kids, but you don’t want to lose your own at the same time.”

Columbus parents hope for change in child care struggles

The city of Columbus is using $3.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to provide a child care lifeline to some parents and providers. Mayor Andrew Ginther announced in September that the funds will pay for 500 $1,000 signing bonuses for teachers, a campaign to recruit workers and 250 scholarships for low-income families who earn too much to qualify for other government subsidies.

“It’s significant,” says Karolak, noting the average cost for full-time, year-round child care in Franklin County is $13,127 for an infant and $10,456 for a preschooler. “That’s a whopping number. In many states, a year of tuition at the state’s flagship university is less expensive than a year of child care.” At Ohio State University, 2020-21 tuition was $11,518—just $1,062 more than the average cost for a preschooler.

Typically, about 70 percent of costs for a child care center are labor, says Rody. That compares to about 30 percent in the restaurant industry.

Karolak and others are convinced that the pandemic has brought to the fore an issue that has been festering for years: how child care is funded in the United States.

“We insist on seeing it as an individual family responsibility, at a time in the lives of families when they are the least able to pay for it, and that puts parents at a disadvantage,” Karolak says. “What we need is a way of providing this crucial service that is more certain, reliable and equitable for the public good.”

The business model for child care centers must change, Ginn says. “It’s not funded in a way that allows it to be self-sufficient and sustained,” she says. “We are hanging on by a wing and a prayer. And yet, the first five years for brain development for kids are the most important in setting them up for success in life.”

Ginn also worries that, with wages rising in other industries, particularly starting wages, parents who take those jobs will become ineligible for child care subsidies. “That’s been a huge problem we’ve started to see with families,” she says. Rules take into account increasing wages as a result of work experience, but parents may not be eligible for subsidies if they start a job at a high wage or if their pay increases rapidly, she says.

Karolak hopes that the current pandemic-induced crisis will encourage everyone to reexamine the ways that child care is provided and paid for. “Hopefully it’s driving action to see the importance of the early years and how we think about making care more universally accessible for working parents.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.