SCHENECTADY — Schenectady County on Monday launched an online portal designed to streamline the application process for families and providers seeking child care subsidies, a move officials hope will bolster services at a time when they’re needed more than ever.
The portal comes as providers continue to struggle finding workers and more families are eligible to receive child care subsidies after the state, earlier this month, expanded the eligibility threshold to include families making up to 300% of the national poverty level, the equivalent of $83,250 for a family of four.
Previously, families needed a combined income of 200% of the national poverty level, or $54,500 for a family of four. The expanded eligibility extended the subsidies to thousands of children across the state.
County legislator Michelle Ostrelich, chair of the Health, Housing & Human Services Committee, said the new portal is designed to act as a one-stop shop for child care needs, allowing families to apply for benefits and providers to apply for certification. Previously, applications would need to be completed by hand and submitted either in-person or via fax.
“Just raising kids with all the other pressures that families are under — being able to apply online really does open a much easier access to the benefits that they need,” she said.
The portal, the first of its kind in the state, can be accessed by visiting schenectadycountycares.com.
Ostrelich said the expanded subsidies will help breakdown affordability barriers surrounding child care, and extend benefits to families where parents and guardians are searching for a new job, or working to complete an education, vocational or other training program in the hopes of improving the quality of their family’s lives in the long-term.
But the portal also benefits providers by simplifying the certification process — a crucial step in accessing benefits that can be used to improve services or bolster wages. Certified providers caring for children eligible for assistance become eligible to receive subsidies from the county’s Department of Social Services.
Paul Brady, commissioner of the Schenectady County Department of Social Services, called the portal “revolutionary,” noting that applicants will be able to track their applications electronically.
“This is absolutely an exciting moment,” he said.
Schenectady County is home to 262 child care providers, servicing thousands of children, according to Brady.
Still, barriers continue to exist, and issue the county Legislature is hoping to address in the coming months.
Lawmakers, earlier this month, appointed a subcommittee to analyze the growing need for child care services in the county and make recommendations on how to improve access.
Establishing the portal was the committee’s first step, but meetings are continuing to take place to further examine the issue, according to Omar Sterling McGill, a District 1 representative who co-chairs the committee.
“We are going to meet again to see if there’s anything else that we can do to try to ease the access,” he said. “This is a huge step for us.”
Child care providers throughout the region have struggled to attract qualified workers in recent months, prompting concerns that some services may be cut entirely.
The Capital Region YMCA last week announced it was in the process of trying to fill more than 130 positions needed to operate before- and after-school programming. The organization currently operates 40 sites across 14 school districts, serving up to 1,450 children.
If the positions can not be filled, the agency said it would have to slash services.
But smaller providers are struggling as well, including the YWCA NorthEastern NY, which provides services for up to 100 children a day across its two centers.
Nancy Johnson, director of the YWCA’s Early Learning Center, said the organization has a waitlist of around 80 children, which she attributed to a lack of staff, an issue that she traced back to low pay.
“It’s hard to get teachers to come in,” she said.
Johnson, who has worked with the YWCA for 30 years, noted that attracting help for child care services has always been difficult, but said the issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Previously, she said, families would seek to have their name added to organization’s waitlist because they specifically wanted services provided by the YWCA. Nowadays, families are registering without touring the facility because they are desperate to find care.
“They’re just saying I want my name on the list,” Johnson said.
But while systemic issues around child care linger, Johnson said the new portal is a step in the right direction, noting that it has simplified an otherwise complicated process while opening up new funding opportunities for families and providers.
“This is a gamechanger,” she said. “A huge gamechanger on the market.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.
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