Alma Wiley has run a daycare out of her Security-Widefield home for nearly 27 years, and says it’s about time for her to retire.
“It’s amazing the wear and tear it puts on your body,” Wiley said of caring for children, between bouts of wrangling the four young kids in her backyard and comforting a four-month-old.
Wiley, 49, recently had reconstructive hip surgery and was on crutches for six weeks over the summer, but said she only took three days off and has continued to care for eight children through her recovery. Wiley’s doctor wanted her to take 12 weeks off, to which she said, “There’s just no way.”
Where would the children go? Wiley already has a waitlist 12 families long for a single infant slot that will become available at her home next year. The number of Early Care and Education providers in El Paso County is low and dwindling, and finding a substitute who is properly background checked and trained to meet licensing standards “is not even possible,” she said.
“We’re very needed,” she told the Business Journal. “That’s the sad part is, there’s so many [providers] that are retiring. We lost quite a few that retired early because of COVID. We’ve lost a couple because of COVID. The last two and a half years has been a struggle for the providers.”
The need for childcare in the county and Colorado Springs is increasing as providers like Wiley, who operates a licensed Family Child Care Home — a private ECE business — feel the after-effects of the pandemic and face heightened financial hurdles due to the economy. FCCH providers make up nearly half of the county’s licensed ECE providers overall, and Wiley represents more than 90 of them (a couple in Teller County, too) as president of the Pikes Peak Region Family Child Care Association.
And other types of providers, such as ECE centers that usually employ multiple child caretakers and can accept more children, are continuing to struggle to fill their workforces, said Kelly Hurtado, vice president of programs for Joint Initiatives for Families and Youth, which oversees El Paso County’s Early Childhood Council and is the Local Coordinating Organization for Colorado’s upcoming rollout of universal preschool.
The Springs recently ranked No. 9 out of all mid-size metro areas in the U.S. for the fewest childcare workers, with a ratio of about 228 children to one worker, according to a study published Sept. 14 by HowtoHome.com, a site that publishes home-related content.
The site’s researchers, in partnership with the data analysis publishing company Lattice Publishing, used U.S. Census Bureau statistics to compare the number of children (defined as kids 14 and under) in a city to the number of childcare workers, including those who work at schools, businesses, private homes and childcare facilities. The occupational data does not include teachers and teaching assistants in preschools and K-12 schools, said Mike LaFirenza,
founder of Lattice Publishing, in an email.
Hurtado said workforce development has become one of Joint Initiative’s (JI) main focuses as it leads the county council, Alliance for Kids. The nonprofit even built a new department over the last year to address workforce needs, she said.
“Honestly, if we don’t solve this workforce crisis,
it doesn’t matter how much we’re supporting programs in other ways, if they’re not adequately staffed,” Hurtado told the Business Journal. “It’s one of our top goals as the Early Childhood Council.”
Challenges on the Horizon
Private childcare — usually located in a center or FCCH — is not an attractive field to go into, salary and benefits wise, the Business Journal reported in a May story about the challenges ahead for implementing universal preschool, also known as UPK.
The median annual wage for childcare workers in the Springs is $27,220, the HowtoHome.com study found.
“Most family childcare providers get in it to get their [own] kids into school full time, and then a lot of them will seek school districts or centers or other jobs — but the pay is still low,” Wiley said. “And, honestly, the lack of respect from parents doesn’t help providers stay in the field long.
“Many family childcare providers will undercut their pay, because they don’t feel that they should charge what a center charges, but yet they’re the one person [being] the janitor, the nurse, the cook,” she added. “All of that for one provider, with no breaks, for 10 to 12 hours a day. Then you get ridiculed a lot from parents on the price that we’re charging.”
And because FCCH providers make up a significant portion of providers in El Paso County, the rollout of UPK will rely heavily on them. Many have expressed uncertainty about whether participation in the program will be sustainable for their businesses, the Business Journal reported.
UPK will provide 10 hours of state-funded preschool each week for families of 4-year-olds in Colorado starting in fall 2023, and the intent is to involve a range of public and private ECE providers in the program to give families options.
The workforce concerns have come up frequently during JI’s recent listening sessions for providers, parents and other stakeholders, as it plans the local roll out of UPK, Wiley and Hurtado said.
“They’ve been doing these input sessions to get the public’s input on what the families want and what the families need,” Wiley said. “The LCOs are trying to get all the input that they can to write their community plan, because it’s due by the end of October.”
Wiley’s view of how UPK will play out in the county is still grim. Providers are anticipating an influx of families seeking care using the state program, and there just aren’t enough of them at this time, she said.
“I don’t see [how] there are going to be enough spaces between centers, school districts and family childcare,” she said. “I don’t foresee there being enough.”
Barriers and Opportunities
Wiley shared the myriad financial and logistical barriers that prevent people from becoming licensed FCCH providers in the county, and said there’s been a decline in FCCH providers, just since earlier this year.
Hurtado reported that there are 198 FCCH providers as of Sept. 1, down from the 200 counted in April.
FCCH providers can take a $150 pre-licensing course, available each quarter, through Alliance for Kids. (The training is required for providers to become licensed and offered through other organizations, too, Hurtado said.) The council also provides other support like assistance navigating zoning requirements to open a FCCH and with filling out a licensing application, according to the Alliance for Kids website.
But Wiley said the council’s course is one of the most expensive in the state, and is offered virtually during the day from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. — a period when people interested in becoming FCCH providers are likely to be working. The zoning process can be especially burdensome — unincorporated El Paso County, the city of Colorado Springs and city of Fountain each have their own rules and costs associated with opening and operating a FCCH within their borders, Wiley said.
She estimates it can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 depending on zoning requirements or changes needed, and the type of license being sought and its associated fees. These startup costs can be too much for interested providers to overcome, Wiley added.
“It’s so expensive,” she said. “Zoning is outrageous with the city.”
Hurtado said JI has several initiatives going to help FCCH providers get on their feet, and to attract young people interested in an ECE career.
In addition to the support it
offers to providers for the licensing process, Hurtado said JI has established scholarships for its pre-licensing course and is using funds from two Community Innovation and resilience for Care and Learning Equity grants awarded to the organization and other ECE providers and councils in July. One will be used to recruit and help new caregivers navigate their careers and the other to support existing caregivers stay in the field, she said.
Hurtado added that some ECE programs at public colleges in the state, including Pikes Peak State College, are also offering courses for free — if students declare their major in the field early on. JI is working to create dual-enrollment programs for high school students pursuing an ECE career, she said.
From Hurtado’s perspective, these new funding opportunities — some prompted by the workforce shortage — actually make it “a good time to get into the field.”
“There’s some funding there that wasn’t there before,” she said.