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Child care staffing shortage could make it harder for people to go back to work

Child care centers across the Lehigh Valley and beyond are facing an uphill battle to get their facilities staffed as parents return to working in offices and drop their children off for in-person classes.

Staffing levels are critical for child care centers, which are required to have low ratios of children to adults. People in the industry say conditions both pandemic- and non-pandemic-related combined to create a crisis.

“The child care staffing crisis is a problem that has been evolving for a long time, and this COVID and the economy have just collided now, and we’re in a crisis,” said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

“If we don’t have child care, our families that want to go back to work can’t go back to work and our businesses can’t be fully functioning and our economy doesn’t recover,” she said.

The problems are several fold: jobs are low-paying and can’t compete with other industries; some people are afraid to return and become exposed to COVID; and dozens of child care centers closed during the pandemic, giving employees a chance to find other types of employment.

Compounding the problem for parents, not all of those centers reopened. In Lehigh and Northampton counties, 51 child care centers closed since February 2020, according to state data.

Among those that reopened or stayed open, 4 out of 5 child care providers in Pennsylvania are experiencing a staffing shortage, according to a recent national survey of early childhood educators from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Among the 306 Pennsylvania respondents to the survey, 60% reported they were serving fewer children, 41% had longer waitlists, 30% were unable to open classrooms and 27% reduced operating hours, according to a news release.

Programs are operating at 62% of their licensed capacity, according to the survey.

The state needs to address the industry’s challenges, state Rep. Mike Schlossberg said in a news conference Wednesday.

“It’s not as if the child care industry was rolling in money before COVID, but since the pandemic it’s been hit particularly hard,” he said. “What does it say about our priorities that we pay warehouse workers more than the teachers of our kids?”

In the last month, the child care shortage has been evident to Barber. When she reminded child care centers about the organization’s jobs board, the number of postings went from four to about 190 in a matter of weeks.

“To be honest, most people getting their education degree prefer to go to the school districts or charter schools because they get benefits and higher pay,” said Sophia Estrella, owner of Elevation Community Center in Allentown. “Sometimes we just can’t match that.”

In 2019, the median hourly wage for child care workers in Pennsylvania was $10.69, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Preschool teachers made $13.96, preschool/child care directors $23.40, and kindergarten teachers $36.58, according to the data.

Estrella was lucky: Elevation qualified for pandemic relief aid, allowing her to raise wages from about $9 to $12 an hour.

Still, she described the child care staffing problem in a word: horrible.

Elevation has room for 97 children, from infants to 12-year-olds, she said. But because of the staffing shortage, right now Estrella can only take 60.

For child care centers, the number of staff members they have dictates how many children they can enroll. For example, there can be no more than four infants, or six toddlers, per adult.

Denise Madzik, coordinator of the Reibman Hall Children’s Center at Northampton Community College, is seeing the problem too. Although her center’s situation is a little different — there’s a focus on the arts, it mostly serves students and staff at the school, and has access to the school’s education students — she’s not insulated from the shortage.

She’s finding it hard to find qualified applicants to replace people who left.

“In a lot of programs, the only way to raise wages is to raise the cost for families, and there’s a limit to what we can do with that because of course families need child care,” Madzik said.

In the National Association for the Education of Young Children survey, 78% of respondents identified low wages as the main obstacle to recruitment and 64% identified insufficient pay as the main reason people leave the field.

The state has $1.2 billion available for child care through the American Rescue Plan, acting Human Services Secretary Meg Snead said at Wednesday’s news conference. Officials are still working through how to allocate that money.

“Unfortunately, emergency relief funds will not fix the underlying economic conditions in early childhood education that has led to the crisis with more than 850 child care programs closing in the state since the onset of the pandemic,” Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, said in a news release. She urged congress to invest in child care and preschool.

Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers need more than 40 employees to fill needed waitlists and programs, President and CEO Charles Dinofrio said. In a normal year it’s usually looking to fill 15-20 positions, he said. If it can’t find the staff, it won’t be able to take on as many children as usual.

At the Greater Valley YMCA, staff is down about 15% from pre-pandemic times, said David Fagerstrom, the organization’s president and CEO. That equates to about 250 children that can’t be served, he said.

For now, he said his organization seems to be OK with preschool-aged children. But he’s gearing up for demand to change once working parents start to need before- or after-school care for their children.

“We’re not quite in panic mode yet, but we’re starting to get there,” he said.

Morning Call reporter Michelle Merlin can be reached at 610-820-6533 or at mmerlin@mcall.com.

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