Andrea Lewis had trouble recruiting and retaining staff at her Manitoulin Island daycare, to the point where she was forced to close the daycare for six weeks.
The last employee to leave went to the school board, where many educators were recruited to work, she said.
“It’s shorter hours, you get all the holidays, the pay is better — we can’t get that,” Lewis said.
“I find a lot of people are burned out too… They’re just leaving the sector altogether because they haven’t gotten that recognition in these few years of COVID, and I think it’s just taking a really big toll on them.”
The Lewis Center is one of several across Ontario to have closed its doors for varying lengths of time recently due to staff shortages. She may reopen the program to school-age children next week, but hopes to reopen the space to younger children on November 1.
That’s the same day as the deadline for licensed child caregivers to decide if they want to enroll in the $10-a-day program.
The deadline was extended after the government changed some guidelines to encourage more for-profit operators to sign up, but in less than a month, progress still varies widely from municipality to municipality. In some smaller jurisdictions, all providers have signed up, while in others only about 50 percent are being taken up.
Recruitment ‘important’ but retention ‘main issue’
In Toronto, more than 70 percent have opted in, while in the Durham area it’s about 85 percent and in the Peel area about 57 percent.
But with 71,000 new spaces promised as part of the deal, the sector is wondering who will fill all those new spaces when centers are already struggling to keep their doors open.
As part of this agreement between Ontario and the federal government, the province sets a wage floor of $18 per hour for registered early childhood educators and $20 for RECE caregivers.
But advocates have called for much higher wages, and Lewis said that won’t solve their staffing problems at all.
“We’re already paying our employees more than this floor, so that doesn’t help much,” she said.
The deal also stipulated that the Department of Education should work with the sector on a “comprehensive recruitment and retention plan” over the summer, but that has not yet happened.
The Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario requires a minimum wage of $25 for anyone working in childcare and $30 an hour for registered childminders. They would also like to see the introduction of a wage grid as an incentive for people to stay in the sector.
“The recruiting part is important, but employee retention is really the main issue,” said Rachel Vickerson, the group’s chief executive officer.
“It doesn’t mean just wages…but real career growth and career ladders for people to see.”
The workforce crisis in the childcare sector is long-standing, but it has come to a head, Vickerson said.
“It was something we heard about across the country, really before COVID, but it’s certainly gotten a lot worse and led to programs that can’t keep the rooms open,” she said.
“Then when the province comes to them and asks for an expansion, they just can’t even think about it.”
A recent report by the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario found particularly high job vacancies in nursing and residential care, hospitals, and child care and child welfare societies. The latter sector had a job vacancy rate of 2.8 percent in 2019, which has now risen to 5.8 percent, the report says.
All topics are “interlinked”
Morna Ballantyne, chief executive of advocacy group Child Care Now, said Ontario had been holding employee consultations relatively recently, publishing a report under the former Liberal government in 2018. In this report, a wage grid was identified as key to incentivizing daycare centers to stay in the sector and ensuring their wages remain competitive compared to their peers working in daycare.
It also recommended incentives for employers to provide benefit packages, advice on a two-vendor model for licensed home-based daycare to combat isolation and burnout, greater access to career development, and the development of recruitment and marketing materials for distribution at school counseling offices and careers fairs.
This latest round of consultations should not be held in isolation, Ballantyne said, but should have separate talks on workforce, integration and expansion.
“All of these issues are linked,” she said.
“We certainly will not be able to improve the quality of licensed programs without addressing the barriers to bringing qualified registered early childhood educators into the sector. We certainly will not be able to have more licensed child care in the province unless the staffing crisis is resolved.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that Ontario is working to hire – and retain – thousands of new workers to ensure children receive quality programs.
“We continue to work with partners to inform the development of additional tools to support the recruitment and retention of qualified early childhood education and childcare professionals in this sector,” he wrote.