Wisconsin’s child care staffing crisis could get worse if COVID relief funds dry up, survey finds


Wisconsin’s child care industry continues to face a critical staffing crisis – one that is expected to get worse if federal COVID relief funds the state allocates to providers dry up within the next few years.

That’s according to a National Association for the Education of Young Children October 2022 survey of more than 12,000 early childhood educators across the country. The association this winter unveiled its Wisconsin survey data through the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. The data encompass a sample size of 1,173 child care centers, including family providers. 

The survey showed that 63.3% of Wisconsin respondents are currently experiencing a staffing shortage, compared with 67% nationally, and that 79.8% are “greatly” or “to some extent” facing burnout and exhaustion because of staffing challenges. Dane County child care providers within the last few weeks echoed the survey’s workforce sentiments, and said the money they receive from the state is merely keeping their businesses afloat.

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Academy of Little Vikings

Meredith Lindeman, left, lead teacher, and Kali Schreiber, center support, work in the infant room at Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb. The child care center would like to expand and hire more staff, but that’s not economically viable right now, owner Brenda Fritz said, even with funds and programs available at the state level to stabilize Wisconsin’s child care industry. 

It also indicated that 32.1% of providers would consider leaving their job or closing their program in the future if economic conditions don’t improve, compared with 29.2% nationally. 

The U.S. economy loses more than $50 billion per year in revenue, wages and productivity due to “persistent child care problems,” according to a 2021 report by Washington D.C. think tank Brookings Institution.

And fueling the state’s child care staffing crisis are wages that haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living, as well as financial burdens and closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin was already seeing child care “deserts” before the health crisis, WECA said, or regions where a center can’t be found for miles despite major need.

The average wage that child care workers make in the state is $7.50 to $13 an hour, which for a 40-hour work week puts a family of four at or below the 2022 federal poverty rate.

“We need to start understanding that child care is a public good,” said Ruth Schmidt, WECA executive director, of the survey, adding that the report’s results “striking” but not surprising. 

Academy of Little Vikings

Cody Lindeman, left, prepares lunches for children, with owner, Brenda Moore Fritz, at right, at Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb.

Moreover, 45.6% of providers said they are currently serving fewer children than they would like (45.4% nationally), with 51.5% reporting longer waitlists of parents needing their facilities (37.4% nationally).

The backlogs are a consequence of staffing shortages, respondents said. 

Meanwhile, 27.1% of Wisconsin survey respondents said their program would close without current financial supports. More than $700 million in federal pandemic relief funding has been given to providers by the state since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it expires in 2024, Schmidt explained.

In Wisconsin, a majority of that funding has supported the Child Care Counts program, which provides payments to child care facilities to increase wages, and offset other operating costs. WECA said it is advocating for a $300 million investment into the continuation of the program in the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget. 

Academy of Little Vikings

Tara Wagar, district 4K teacher, plays outside with children at Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb.

It’s not all bleak: efforts within the last year to financially stabilize the beleaguered child care industry have come from other state organizations, too, as consciousness about the sector’s economic necessity has risen.

Wisconsin Department of Children and Families in 2022 implemented a program called Project Growth, which included $10 million to help businesses form partnerships with regulated child care facilities to purchase slots for employees, as well as $8.1 million to help communities across the state address local child care workforce and resource needs over the next few years.

Madison Area Technical College additionally received a $2.9 million grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help build capacity for child care slots on the South Side, and for other MATC campuses in the region. 

“(The $300 million) will keep the status quo,” Schmidt said, adding that much more is needed from both the public and private sector to help child care providers flourish, not just stable. “It will keep (the child care industry) from further receding in our state.”

Academy of Little Vikings

Amy Siebert, lead teacher, gets into character during an activity with children in the two and a half to three-year-old room at Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb.

Ongoing struggles 

Brenda Fritz, owner and administrator of child care center Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb, said she hasn’t seen a resume come across her desk “in months.” 

The business opened in 2013, and has about 42 employees, Fritz said, adding she’s looking to hire at least five more. And because of a growing waitlist of children (75) to care for, Fritz said the center is eyeing an expansion. 

But that’s not economically viable right now, she said, because of her staffing shortage. The academy’s waitlist extends into 2024 and includes “babies that haven’t even been born yet,” she said, adding that it cares for 165 children ages 0-12.

The academy is a recipient of Child Care Counts funding ($25,000 a month since May 2021), in which $15,000 boosts employee wages (averaging $15-17) by $500 a month. The center gets a separate monthly Child Care Counts stipend of $10,000 to go toward operational costs, Fritz said, adding that the money has been a good retention and stabilization tool, but nothing beyond that. 

Academy of Little Vikings

Academy of Little Vikings in Mount Horeb.

Fritz said she tells her staff members to think of their grant money as bonuses rather than wage increases. That helps fuel the awareness that the funding may soon go away, she said, adding that without the grants, she would have to raise tuition for families that use her center.

Jen Bailey, executive director of child care program Reach Dane, expressed woes similar to Fritz’s, and also receives Child Care Counts funding. That’s roughly $112,000 a month since spring 2021, Reach Dane said.

The program services mostly low-income families (1,000 children ages 0-5) across several Dane County locations, and has 280 employees – it needs to hire 40 more, Bailey said. 

“Currently, we have 10 classrooms that are closed due to lack of staff,” Bailey said.

Both providers said they’ve additionally helped their employees get child care with Project Growth money.

“We pay a lot of lip service, but we don’t put out money where our mouth is,” Bailey said. “We need to treat it like the profession it is. We are asking people to care for (children) that are in this critical development stage.”

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