LEWISTON — One of Chantel Pettengill’s biggest fears is that she won’t have enough staff on hand to care for the 136 children who attend Pettengill Academy, the preschool and day care she co-owns with her husband.
“But we’ve been able to make it work so that way we’re reliable for parents because I know — I know that’s hard, especially when day cares have to shut down rooms because there wasn’t enough staffing,” Pettengill said Thursday.
That this fear hasn’t come to fruition “has been a blessing,” Pettengill said Thursday, and in no small part thanks to the nearly $265,000 in grant funding they received over the past year to increase staff salaries and improve retention and recruitment.
Pettengill Academy was one of 1,530 child care providers from all 16 counties in Maine to receive one a child care stabilization grant from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The nearly $74 million American Rescue Plan funding benefitted about 7,500 individuals, DHHS said in a release Thursday.
Early childhood care and education is a chronically underpaid field, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley.
The median hourly wage of a child care worker as of May 2021 was $14.16, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Grant recipients received monthly payments from October 2021 to October 2022, which included $200 that went directly into eligible staff’s paychecks. Depending on the size and type of facility, recipients received additional funds to raise salaries.
Pettengill said she was able to raise the hourly wages of the nearly 40 people on staff by about $1.25, “which definitely makes it a little bit easier to recruit new teachers.”
With wages low across the board finding good, qualified workers can be a major challenge when they can make more at the new Target in town, Pettengill said.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. The $200 helps, just definitely not enough, but it at least gets us started in the right direction,” she said.
YWCA Central Maine’s executive director, Melanie LaMore Gagnon, said their ability to increase wages for their 20 or so year-round employees has made a difference for both recruitment and retention.
YWCA on East Avenue in Lewiston offers preschool, afterschool and summer camp programs for children ages 18 months to 12 years.
Enrollment dropped during the early days of COVID when the situation was more uncertain or parents or caregivers were working from home, but those numbers have been steadily climbing back toward their capacity of 110 slots, LaMore Gagnon said.
“We never closed our doors during COVID. We remained open the entire time and we actually opened up additional slots for specifically essential workers during COVID,” she said.
Jennifer Merrill, the executive director of early childhood education at Auburn-Lewiston YMCA, said the extra $200 a month “has obviously delighted our staff because unfortunately, early childhood educators are not paid as well as they should be.”
YMCA has an all-day child care center at their Turner Street location and a preschool at Temple Shalom, both in Auburn.
They also offer summer camp and Merrill said she thinks the grant funding helped them attract more camp staff, but it’s also been a boost for the nearly 30 year-round employees.
“But the girls that have been here a long time, like myself and my long-timers, it’s real nice to be recognized for our important things that we do and to get a grant that’s paid directly to us,” she said.
While Maine has announced additional grant programs for child care and early childhood education, the three women expressed their concerns about what will happen if this program ends.
“It’s not something that we know that will sustain, or will it sustain? We don’t know. It keeps getting extended, which is lovely,” Merrill said. “But when people take that $200 a month hit, what does that look like for our workforce?”
“Child care, I think, it has been seen as a workforce issue (and) COVID just really highlighted some of the issues that we have known for a very long time, that child care is extremely important,” LaMore Gagnon said.
“So monies going toward it as a result of COVID hopefully will continue. And hopefully folks will be able to continue to see the need to continue to fund child care centers so that there are no more child centers that close, (and) that more child care centers can open and meet the need for what the demand is in the community,” she said.