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Child-care centers' hiring struggles hinder return-to-work plans

"We are the key to recovery. Our economy does not survive if families can’t go back to work."

Angela Garcia has about a dozen open positions at her two child-care centers in New Mexico. She’s tried job fairs, sign-on bonuses, retention incentives and working with recruiters to fill the openings, but nothing has worked.

By her count, between five and eight of those jobs have been open for more than six months. One week, Garcia had 12 job interviews scheduled, but only three of the applicants showed up. When she offered positions to two of them, they both turned her down.

“I’ll be completely honest, we are at a loss,” said Garcia. “We are not having any luck finding anyone that wants to return to the workforce at this point. If we don’t begin to get staff into our centers, I’m potentially looking at closing classrooms, which is only going to decrease access to my families, and I’m not really sure how that’s going to help our community recover.”

Garcia’s child-care center isn’t alone in facing this problem. Around the country, day-care centers and summer camps are struggling to operate at full capacity due to widespread worker shortages. The problem has resulted in waiting lists for parents looking for child care. With many companies aiming to bring staff who worked from home during the Covid pandemic back into the office this fall, the problem could worsen because the demand for care will grow. And without child care, other parents may have to step out of the workforce, slowing the economic recovery.

A camp in New Hampshire was forced to close its doors because of staff and food shortages. According to a report by The Boston Globe last week, as training was set to begin, the camp’s owners were still looking to hire as many as 20 counselors after earlier hires disappeared.

Employers in the child-care industry have long struggled to find, hire and retain skilled workers, but this is a problem that was made worse by the pandemic. The industry lost about 350,000 child-care workers — about a third of its workforce — during the health crisis due to layoffs and it hasn’t yet been able to recoup these losses, said Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association. Even centers that kept their doors open last year have lost staff as many were unwilling or unable to work through the pandemic.

Annual turnover in the industry pre-pandemic has been estimated to be as high as 30 percent, according to Katie Hamm, associate deputyassistant secretary for early childhood development at the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Churn can hurt the quality of care children receive, she said.

“At the height of the pandemic, we lost a lot of early childhood educators. Since President Biden took office in 2020, we’ve added about 65,000 child-care jobs. That puts us at 89 percent of the pre-pandemic level, but definitely not enough,” Hamm said.

“Across the board, there is difficulty in hiring folks in the early childhood sector,” Hamm said. “We had kind of a quiet crisis before the pandemic in the sector. And now that’s ... really coming to the forefront.”

National child-care provider KinderCare has hired 11,500 teachers this year, according to CEO Tom Wyatt. The company has about 3,300 open teaching positions and plans to hire 5,200 more when schools open in the fall.

KinderCare has been able to attract workers because of its culture and the benefits it offers employees, which include health insurance, a 401(k) plan, child-care discounts, and reimbursements for degrees and certifications, Wyatt said. As a national company, KinderCare has the benefit of scale that many smaller providers don’t, he said. But even with these advantages, the company isn’t operating at full capacity.

“We are at least 25% to 30% higher than minimum wage in every market, and really much higher than that in most markets,” Wyatt said. “We raise our teacher salaries every year. ... But to think that we would be able to raise tuition rates to a point to get teachers to even a further livable wage is hard for me to see right now.”

The vast majority of child-care providers in the U.S., 93 percent, are small businesses, and many lack the budget to raise salaries because the businesses are already operating on small profit margins, said Lehnhoff, who has worked in the industry for years.

“If we want to get America back to work, we’re going to have to recognize that child care and early education at a higher quality level is a business that is essential,” said Lehnhoff. “Child care is at a point they can’t charge anymore to middle America, which means they can’t raise their wages.”

She said she has seen many workers struggle to survive on low wages, even if benefits are available to them.

“They could not afford the benefits, even though we had a variety of packages, even wellness, because they needed the money they earned to live on. So benefits is not the biggest concern in the industry. It’s just there’s not a living wage,” said Lehnhoff.

Experts and employers agree that the industry’s staffing crisis is driven by poor compensation for its workers. According to Hamm, the national average wage is $12 an hour.