Child care industry leaders are worried about what will happen when federal COVID-19 relief funds, which have helped child care centers across the state stay afloat through the pandemic, are all used up.
Since the onset of the pandemic, federal COVID-19 relief funds that poured into Maine and other states have helped keep child care centers open and have supported new ones by allowing providers to invest in their businesses and COVID-19 safety necessities, hire new staff and retain employees by paying more. But as COVID-19 money is used up, those in the profession worry they will not be able to provide the same level of service at rates affordable to families without the sustained government support they have long called for.
“The pandemic is winding down and so is the money,” said Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. “Now there is this big question mark. Will the support continue or will it dwindle down?”
The director of Peaks Island Children’s Workshop said that question weighs on her as she wonders how to keep the doors open at the Casco Bay island community’s only child care in the years to come.
Children’s Workshop is licensed to have 12 youths. Earlier this year, Director Arria Carbonneau thought she would have to cap enrollment at nine children because she didn’t have the money to hire a lead teacher.
But $10,500 awarded to Children’s Workshop through a Portland grant program turned things around. The city is using $500,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funding to give as much as $15,500 to child care operators looking to grow, upgrade or get started. Carbonneau is using the money to help pay her lead teacher’s salary over the next two years.
Carbonneau is grateful for the funding. But she doesn’t know what she’ll do when it runs out.
Even before the pandemic, the country’s child care industry was facing significant challenges – scarce and declining options, skyrocketing costs for families, a shortage of workers and stubbornly low wages with no benefits for some in the industry. The pandemic, labor shortage and inflation exacerbated these problems. And now an era of significant government support that helped stabilize child care capacity seems to be ending.
A September study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that while employment in other industries has bounced back since the early days of the pandemic, child care jobs have not recovered. One hundred percent of goods, construction and manufacturing jobs and 103 percent of private-sector jobs lost during the pandemic have been recovered, according to the study. But only 76% of those who left the child care industry have returned. With fewer workers, child care providers can’t take on as many children, putting the strain on parents.
The day Shea Berry-Brennan found out she was pregnant with her son, who’s now 2-and-a-half, she and her husband, Jamie Brennan, got on the waitlist for a slot in Children’s Workshop. They are invested in their careers and need two full-time incomes to support their family, they said.
It took three years for their son Phoenix to get off the waitlist. And it could have been longer.
Carbonneau said if she did not get the Portland grant money, there would not have been a spot for Phoenix. After two and a half years of cobbling together full-time child care using nannies and multiple off-island day cares, the couple finally have on-island care with a lot of individual attention for Phoenix, and he can get to know other children.
But now they’re facing the same problem with their 8-month-old daughter, Evangeline, who is on the 16-person waitlist for Children’s Workshop. Evangeline attends two off-island day cares. The commute includes a 15-minute ferry ride, and because her parents couldn’t find a child care center that could take her every day, they pay two part-time rates that together cost more than a full-time slot.
Experts and those in the industry say the lack of access is tied to a shortage of child care workers, caused by the low salaries and challenging work.
In 2021, the average pay for child care workers in the United States was $13.31 per hour and $27,680 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Maine that same year, the average hourly wage was $14.90 and the average annual wage was $31,000.
By comparison, the nation’s average living wage – the hourly rate an individual needs to earn to pay for basic needs for themselves or their family – is $17.46 per hour for a single adult, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. Maine’s is $17.88 per hour.
Governments at all levels have invested substantially in child care since the beginning of the pandemic, in part to ensure the industry would survive and allow parents to go back to workplaces when conditions improved. The federal government authorized $39 billion for child care in the American Rescue Plan Act.
Maine, using ARPA and other COVID-19 relief money, has infused at least $100 million into the state’s child care industry, helping add more than 1,100 additional child care slots across the state as of June.
Portland, through its grant program, has awarded funds to 21 businesses and helped existing and new businesses open up 25 additional child care spots.
Sasha Shunk, the director of Shunk Child Care, is using $4,200 out of the $11,000 she received through Portland’s grant program to give her full-time employees an additional $100 a month and her part-time ones $50 per month.
Shunk, who has been running her child care program for 19 years, said the money was a chance to show employees that she appreciates them.
“I recognize I am not able to pay them as much as they could make outside the field of early childhood, and I really value being able to keep them so I can stay open for all the families I provide for.”
An employee of seven years, Brendle Fowlie said she’s grateful for the extra money.
“It will pay for gas for a bit,” she said. “So, it’s something.”
Fowlie lives an hour away in Berwick. She commutes daily to Portland because she loves the work and says the pay is high for the industry.
Fowlie, who has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood, makes $26 per hour.
“You won’t find that rate anywhere else,” she said.
Although those in child care are grateful for recent government money, they are concerned about the financial future of the industry.
“One of my biggest concerns is that we won’t have that type of investment moving forward,” said Williams, the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children director. She has long advocated for governments to fund child care similarly to how K-12 education is funded.
The state is crafting a long-term funding plan that many industry leaders say is a step in the right direction.
The Maine Office of Child and Family Services under Gov. Janet Mills plans to provide indefinite monthly salary supplements for child care workers. Mills has allocated more than $12 million in general fund money to pay for the supplements, and the state Department of Health and Human Services is developing regulations for the program. The amount has not been determined. The state is expected to decide by June on a tiered system of supplements for child care workers based on education and experience.
State money also helps fund other child care programs including Head Start, a federal program that supports children under age 5 from low-income families as well as public pre-K expansion.
The employees at Children’s Workshop make between $13 and $17.50 an hour without benefits, based on their position and experience. Carbonneau makes $50,000 a year, also with no benefits, and works around 50 to 55 hours a week, she said.
To pay everyone more, she said, Children’s Workshop would have to raise its current rate of $327 a week for infants attending full time. Carbonneau said she doesn’t want to put child care further out of reach for families.
Between Evangeline, Phoenix and their older son Cooper’s after-school care, the Brennan family spends between 20% to 25% of their joint income on child care. The federal DHHS defines affordable child care as that which costs no more than 7% of a family’s income. But on average, parents who use child care spend 13% of their income on the service and 60% of families pay more than 7% of their income on child care.
Child care centers often run on narrow margins, so if they don’t increase tuition and don’t get enough support elsewhere, any pay increases can put them in a tight spot. Every month, Children’s Workshop spends more money paying its staff and its bills than it takes in through tuition, according to Carbonneau.
The child care industry gained a nickname during the pandemic: the workforce behind the workforce.
Williams said she thinks it’s fitting. Child care centers take care of children during the most important years of their development, and the industry supports the whole economy by allowing parents to work, Williams said.
“We need consistent and substantial funding from every level of government to have a strong and stable child care system,” she said. “When we invest in child care, we make sure our whole economy thrives.”