In October, roughly 104,000 Americans missed work because of problems finding child care for their kids, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s an all-time high, topping even the period during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when about 12,000 child care programs were forced to shut down nationally.
The number of parents missing work to care for their children in recent months is virtually equal to the number of child care workers who have left the field since early 2020: The bureau says there are now 100,000 fewer child care workers than there were before the pandemic, a nearly 10% shrinkage in the sector.
The explanation for the shortage is pretty simple: The average American child care worker only earns around $13 per hour, less than they can make stocking retail shelves or working in fast food. And it’s not a new issue. Even before the pandemic, 98% of occupations paid more than child care, according to a 2020 study at University of California, Berkeley. And since then, starting wages in other jobs have increased while wages in child care have stagnated. Simply put, child care can no longer compete with other employers.
What’s new is the growing awareness among business leaders that the shrinking labor force in the child care profession is also affecting their own.
“Child care is an important infrastructure — it’s not just a family issue, it’s a business issue,” explained Ofelia Gonzalez, public information officer at First Things First, a voter-initiated, statewide organization that supports Arizona’s child care and preschool providers through funding and training.
“And it impacts both today’s workforce and the workforce of tomorrow. Child care makes it possible for Arizona to work.”
Gonzalez cites a recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which found that in Arizona, 77% of parents surveyed reported missing work due to child care issues in early 2021, and 6% of them voluntarily left a job due to problems finding child care.
“The study found that our state loses $1.7 billion annually because of child care issues,” Gonzalez said. “This includes Arizona employers losing $1.42 billion annually due to absences and employee turnover. And the state loses $348 million annually in tax revenue due to child care issues.”
Professionals in the field agree that more value needs to be placed on those working in the child care system.
“It’s kind of funny how people can differentiate child care out of the business marketplace,” said Michelle Saint Hilarie, senior statewide program director of Child Care Resource and Referral – Arizona (CCR&R), an organization that operates a state database of all licensed child care centers, connecting families with regulated and background-checked providers.
“People think of child care like public education. They don’t realize it’s actually a service that you have to pay for!”
Saint Hilarie, who’s worked in the child care field for 35 years (the last 21 with CCR&R), said she cringes when she hears well-intentioned people praise child care workers as giving souls who aren’t in it for the money — despite her own polygenic surname.
“It’s fascinating to me, that belief that we should just be the working poor because we choose this field,” she said with a laugh. “Like we’re doing the Lord’s work here so we should just accept the low wages and be happy. But shouldn’t I at least be able to provide for my family? Really, it’s time we change that narrative.”
Saint Hilarie acknowledged that child care has become expensive for many families. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the average cost of infant care in Arizona is nearly $11,000 per year — more per year than in-state tuition at a public college. (In Tucson, the cost for care is closer to $10,000 annually.) That means the typical Arizona family can end up spending close to 20% of its income on child care for just one infant. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers anything more than 7% of a family’s income unaffordable.
Fortunately, there are government programs to help low-income families afford child care, particularly in Pima County.
In 2021, the Pima County Board of Supervisors created PEEPs, or Pima Early Education Program scholarships. The program is designed to assist up to 1,200 children from income-eligible families to attend high-quality preschool at 170 locations across the county, through collaborations with First Things First (which was given an additional 599 scholarships earmarked for low-income families), the federal Head Start program and seven school districts.
Additionally, the passage of state bill HB 2016 allowed the Department of Economic Security (DES) to waive the 20-hour-per-week work requirement for child care benefits so that parents who enroll in a full-time accredited education or employment training program could continue to receive child care subsidies, providing a path to self-sufficiency for a lot of single parents.
On a federal level, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, along with the American Rescue Plan Act, secured Arizona about $1.2 billion in funding to help child care providers, with about $500,000 allocated to the city of Tucson for child care scholarships.
“But those funds run out in 2024,” Gonzalez cautioned. “We have seen positive action to help during the immediate crisis, but we need long-term solutions.”
To that end, First Things First recently hosted a leadership forum that brought together diverse leaders from across the state to learn about, discuss and problem-solve challenges in Arizona’s early childhood system.
“We are working with partners to help build awareness among leadership and policymakers that child care is an important infrastructure,” Gonzalez said. A majority of Arizonans agree. A recent survey by the Arizona Early Childhood Funders Collaborative found that over a third of Arizonans support the state investing in early childhood education for children ages birth to 5.
In the meantime, Saint Hilarie stresses that child care needs to become a more equitable profession, to rebuild that exiting workforce.
“Child care providers are aging out of the system, and the younger generation is not coming into it,” she said. “How do we leverage our career technical education programs at our high schools to create a pipeline, a path for these young men and women, to enter into this workforce? Where can this take you? How can you have a sustainable career in this field?
“These are the questions we’re wresting with, and we need continued state, local and federal investments to support and stabilize child care,” Saint Hilarie added. “Because if child care goes away, what is the business community going to do? If our workforce goes, their workforce is going to go right along with it.”