Childcare centers, workers struggling in pandemic

Preschoolers working together on a puzzle (file photo).

Preschoolers working together on a puzzle (file photo).

Rob Manning / OPB

Even before the pandemic it was hard for child care centers to attract workers, for parents to get affordable child care and for workers to make a living wage. The pandemic has put some providers out of business and those that remain are struggling to attract the workers they need to stay afloat. We talk with Andy Dettman, the director of the New Dream Family Center, Betsy Levitt, who just launched her own child care business, and Zekiel Thomas, who worked for a child care provider but is now a nanny and personal assistant.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Even before the pandemic, it was often hard for child care centers to attract workers and for workers to make a living wage. For parents as we’ve talked about a lot over the years, finding affordable child care was often a huge challenge. The pandemic has magnified all of these existing issues. It’s put some providers out of business, many that remain are struggling to attract the workers they need to stay afloat. We’re going to hear three perspectives on this right now. Starting with Andy Dettman, who is the Director of the New Dream Family Center in Eugene. Andy Dettman, Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Andy Dettman: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How big an issue was staffing for you before the pandemic?

Dettman: It’s always been a struggle for sure. There’s always been a teacher shortage but we’ve always been able to make it work and figure it out and find those people that we need.

Miller: What about now can you make it work? Can you find the people you need?

Dettman: We can’t, it’s almost impossible really. I’m grateful for my long-term teachers who have been with us for a really long time. But it’s sad because amazing educators that we have had who have taught for a decade or more have had to leave this field.

Miller: What are the reasons that they have told you, if they’ve given you reasons, for leaving the field?

Dettman: A lot of folks are really risking their own health and the health of their families. So that’s a really big reason. The other reason is just being able to keep that work-life balance of not living and breathing the pandemic and keeping children safe. It’s very stressful.

Miller: How much of this has to do with the fact that we were just talking about the possibility of student vaccine mandates but obviously, you’re dealing with populations that cannot get vaccinated right now? They don’t exist. Is that one of the biggest issues that teachers are thinking about?

Dettman: Of course. I mean we serve a vulnerable population and we have experienced that firsthand. We’ve experienced closures due to children being ill. How do teachers appropriately socially distance while caring for an infant?

Miller: Yeah. So you have open positions right now you simply can’t fill?

Dettman: Yes. We have had positions open since September of last year.

Miller: When we’ve talked about the question of the challenges of hiring, with other kinds of employers, some have talked about signing bonuses for example, or just trying to increase salaries. How much can you do either of those?

Dettman: Well, as much as we can. We’re nonprofit so we have very limited resources. Our income is derived from tuition so to raise wages it can be very, very tricky. We try our very very best to do that, but without funding that’s really quite impossible. It’s not fair to burden parents with that with that extra cost. It’s a bad cycle.

Miller: What do the staffing issues mean for the services that you’re able to provide?

Dettman: We have strict ratios that are required to maintain. So when there are not enough teachers employed, it means that we have to make choices like closing classrooms and reducing operational hours and it leaves the admin and teachers who we do have working very long hours and causing burnout and then more loss of staff. So like I said, it’s a terrible cycle and at this point, the community has more children needing care than qualified teachers to keep ratios of capacity. So most for local programs, our waitlists are two years or more long and there are still local programs that are closing because of staffing.

Miller: What do you see as the long term repercussions of this because we’re already a year and a half into the pandemic so it’s already obviously been going on for a long time and there’s not exactly a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the issues that we’re talking about right now? So where does this leave us?

Dettman: I think that we’re going to see a lot more trouble with systemic issues. We already have so many problems with homelessness and drug addiction, child neglect, those types of things and quality early childhood education is linked to a myriad of positive outcomes for our community. So I think it’s really important that we get the support that we need to be able to keep going.

Miller: Do you see that support on the horizon? And if I understand correctly, you’re not talking about money from families to pay your salary. It seems like you’re talking about state support or some other kind of public support.

Dettman: I am talking about federal support really. Parents should not be burdened with the costs of child care. It’s really atrocious if you really go and compare tuition costs. It’s not doable for most families. It creates real equity problems. So yes, we need to be federally funded. It’s encouraging to see the conversation happening and to see money coming towards us occasionally, but we need it consistently to pay teachers what they deserve and to offer good benefits and retain staff. And also we need federal funding so that when we experience shutdowns we’re not burdened with impossible choices between laying off amazing educators paying our bills, or whether we can reopen. It’s really important and women and minorities should not have to leave the workforce simply because they cannot find accessible child care for their children.

Miller: Andy Dettman, thanks very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Dettman: Yeah, thank you so much.

Miller: We’re talking right now about how the pandemic has been affecting people who work in child care and in early childhood education. I’m joined now by Zekiel Thomas who used to work at a preschool in East Portland and now is a nanny and a personal assistant. Zekiel, welcome.

Zekiel Thomas: Hi there. Thank you.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. So, as I mentioned, you used to work at a preschool before the pandemic. What was your job like?

Thomas: In that position, I was an assistant to a three-teacher classroom, including myself. The other two teachers were co-leads and it was also a nonprofit preschool. I want to admit it was really hard. I don’t have as much experience as some of my co-workers. I’m fairly new to this field. And even after just a few years, the toll it was taking on my mental and physical health was starting to affect my daily life outside of school as well.

Miller: That was before the pandemic? In other words, it really was a challenging job for you?

Thomas: But I loved it.

Miller: But you loved it. What do you love about it?

Thomas: I got into this work specifically because I love being with children and I think that, as Andy was saying, early childhood–especially that birth to six-time–is so vital and we have so much research now about how important it is later in life. At the same time, it seemed to ask more and more of me every day.

Miller: Am I right that you and other staff were eventually laid off by this preschool because of the pandemic?

Thomas: Yes. The school did a really great job and it ended up that almost the entirety of the support staff was let go and has not been rehired back.

Miller: How did you feel about getting laid off from a job that was really hard, but also had aspects that you loved?

Thomas: At that point, I was prepared for it. I’d kind of seen the writing on the wall if that made sense. The teachers have been wanting to meet without admin to discuss a kind of fear and confusion and reticence about our proposed plan to reopen and which staff was going to be in the building. And, the administration came back with beliefs that the teachers were wanting to be paid for not working. Admin had been expressing hurt and upset about not being invited to a meeting for the teachers even after explaining the kind of power imbalance of,

hey, I have co-workers of color and co-workers from different countries, co-workers with different language capabilities. They’re really nervous about speaking in front of you because they want to be able to process this and make appropriate decisions for themselves and their families, including myself, without people there who control their jobs. And even after that, in a school that was very committed to diversity, inclusion, community, we’re all a family, the response to that was very surprising.

Miller: So if I understand the way this works, you now really are working directly for a family instead of having a sort of corporate-speak of saying, hey, we’re all a family, you literally are in one family’s home right now, right, as a nanny and personal assistant. How did you make that decision?

Thomas: Well, I had specifically contacted a couple of local unions at the time when the pandemic hit and we were talking about what the staff was going to do and the potential for us to be laid off. And, especially when the communication between administration and the teachers was really breaking down, I was really personally feeling the need for mediation and I was just really personally disappointed at the outcome of the board of directors attempting to intervene and mediate. It very much did not really address the concerns of the teachers. Specifically. I contacted ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 5 Union which is currently in the news a lot about Powell’s as well as the PDX Childcare Labor Alliance. They have a nanny organizing specifically where they’re attempting to create support and standardization within the field within Portland so that Portland nannies can come together and share resources and things like that.

Miller: How is your pay now as a nanny compared to when you were working for a center?

Thomas: Honestly, it is so much better. One of the challenges of the pandemic for me was when I was not working was the only time in my adult life that I have been financially stable. I support a disabled immunocompromised partner. And for the most part, even though I do bring in a paycheck, we rely on a lot of community support in order to be able to live. And during the pandemic, it was the first time in my life I’ve been financially stable and then right now I’m being paid better than I have ever been, the highest paying job that I’ve ever had.

Miller: Zekiel Thomas, thanks for giving us some of your time today. I appreciate it.

Thomas: Thanks so much.

Miller: We’re going to hear one more voice on this topic right now. Betsy Levitt also used to work at a preschool in Portland, but recently started her own business. She calls it an intentional learning community for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Betsy Levitt, Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Betsy Levitt: Hi. Thank you.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How did you make the decision to switch? You used to work at Growing Seeds, a pretty high-profile daycare center in preschool in Portland and now you started your own business during the pandemic. How did you make that decision?

Levitt: A couple of factors. I was given the opportunity to rent a house and I’ve always wanted to open a little school. Teaching during the pandemic was pretty challenging.

Miller: I imagine though that starting a business in the middle of a pandemic is also challenging.

Levitt: Yeah, it definitely is. I was at Growing Seeds for five years with two different cohorts. By the time the pandemic hit, I had a pretty solid group of families, so I was able to get word of mouth about starting a little school and it just seemed like a little bit safer than a big center and just being able to run things my own way.

Miller: It sounds like you’re at work right now right? Those are your charges talking in the background?

Levitt: Yeah, there are little ones in the background.

Miller: Cool. How much of this decision had to do with the stresses of the pandemic as opposed to you already being ready to go off on your own?

Levitt: I think the stresses of the pandemic were the final notch that made me realize it was time.

Miller: How much demand is there for your services? We heard at the beginning from Andy Dettman in Eugene that there’s a huge waiting list in Eugene. We’ve certainly heard about waiting lists or simply lack of availability in the Portland area as well. Do you see that now from the provider’s perspective?

Levitt: Oh absolutely. There’s a huge need for infant care especially and the ratios are pretty strict and you can only have a certain amount with a certain amount of teachers, which makes sense. But yeah, infant and toddler care especially is needed.

Miller: I’m curious with everything you’ve seen in the last couple years, where do you think we’re going right now in terms of the whole gamut of the ages? We’re talking about both infant and toddler care and preschool. What do you see as the future of this world?

Levitt: Well, what I hope for is more focused on the importance of early education and brain development and more funding has been said because when you give infants intelligent preschoolers access to really high-quality care, they thrive. That’s kind of a tough question. I guess. I feel like smaller skill care, especially during a pandemic, is safer because you kind of create a little pod and it’s not like where I was where there were maybe 70 kids.

Miller: And how many are with you right now?

Levitt: Seven.

Miller: Hmm.

Levitt: Not right with me at the moment.

Miller: Just a couple there right now. Betsy Levitt, I’ll let you get back, but thanks for giving us a few minutes of your time. I appreciate it.

Levitt: Okay, thank you.

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