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Child care among major obstacles facing community

“The pandemic has revealed what has been a systemic problem, but it’s reared its ugly head during this,” ~ Melissa Kerschner, program director of the Early Learning Center at STEP

Would you be able to tell which of your neighbors is struggling just to meet the basic needs to survive? Maybe there’s someone you see every day at work who is now at a point where they are just one emergency away from a financial crisis.

Once referred to as the working poor, these are the people who fall into the category of ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

After an entire year of dealing with the impact of COVID-19 this segment of the population is facing an even greater strain on their finances, according to information released by the United Way.

In Pennsylvania, over 1.3 million households fall into this category. They are in every community and when combined with households in other areas of the state who live in poverty, nearly two million families are living below the threshold for being income constrained.

These are the families that have income above the Federal Poverty Level but struggle to afford the bare minimum cost of basic household needs. They often do not qualify for assistance and do not earn enough to cover basic expenses such as housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and technology.

“Rental rates are too high. Food costs are going through roof,” Ron Frick, Lycoming County United Way executive director, said.

“When we look at all the types of non-profits, including the United Way, who are trying to mobilize those resources, we’re trying to figure out how can we get organizations in the community to look at this population and go yeah, there are a group of people below the poverty line and thankfully we have organizations like the American Rescue Workers, and Sojourner and the Salvation Army who can help people that really, really need a lot of help,” he said, adding, “but there’s a whole group of people above that who are just trying to make ends meet every single week.”

The study conducted by the United Way pointed out that those in the income constrained category were either essential workers who are still on the job, probably on-site and those who are non-essential, who were working far fewer hours or not at all.

Industries where this group of people work are most likely to be in food service, leisure, hospitality and tourism, all sectors which were severely impacted by the pandemic. They are also more likely to work in small businesses. The report noted that between January and August of 202, the number of small businesses decreased by 19.1%.

Families with children face additional hardships during the pandemic. A lack of adequate internet access, jeopardizes the children’s ability to learn during school closures. Parents who need to work can’t stay home with their children and also miss out on reduced and free meals at school, increasing food insecurity.

The problem with trying to paint everyone in the income constrained category with the same brushstroke is that one family might struggle with finding childcare in order to be able to work while another family might not have access to reliable transportation in order to get to their place of employment.

“If you look at the ALICE report, it’s not just one issue. Maybe I have a car, but I have two wage earners and I only have one car. Maybe I have no cars and I can’t find a way to work,” said Frick.

Frick shared the story of a couple, who are immigrants to this country. They both have jobs, working with Green cards and doing everything all the right ways. The husband is working third shift at a company on Reach Road. There is no bus service and even if they had a car the wife couldn’t leave their children at home in order to transport her spouse to work. To solve the problem, the United Way pooled resources and connected with someone to get the family a car.

Other issues are not so easily remedied, particularly with providing child care.

The United Way’s pandemic report concluded that child care is essential for working families and businesses and a lack of child care can be a workforce barrier for families.

The top concerns financially constrained families had with childcare since the early days of the pandemic in March 2020 were helping children with distance learning and juggling work and child care needs.

Cost is also a prohibitive factor with child care.

The pandemic highlighted the lack of availability of qualified childcare facilities, which had already existed before the health crisis. Daycares would close due to n case of COVID in the staff or clients, which precipitated quarantines. As the pandemic lingers on, daycares are closing permanently as a result of staffing issues.

“The pandemic has revealed what has been a systemic problem, but it’s reared it’s ugly head during this,” according to Melissa Kerschner, program director of the Early Learning Center at STEP.

Child care workers are typically paid low wages. The average wage for someone in Lycoming County working at a day care is around $10.51 for preschool staff.

Not only is it hard to ask someone to work during a pandemic with the potential for health risks raised, for those wages, but many times people who work at daycares, can’t afford childcare for their children.

“People are struggling with childcare at a time when childcare workers are leaving the workforce to pursue higher paying jobs and jobs that are not at such a high risk for COVID,” Frick said.

“The answer is not only paying childcare workers more The answer is how do we support childcare workers. How do we work with local industries to put childcare facilities on campuses,” he added.

What was seen as a source of workers in the daycare sector, the Pennsylvania College of Technology is shutting down their degree program in early care and education. The reason they stated, Kerschner said, is that it was the only program they offered that graduates upon finishing the program could not be guaranteed a living wage.

There are several things that factor into the struggles that day cares are experiencing right now besides low wages.

The problem is that without qualified workers, day cares either limit the number of children they can admit or are forced to close altogether. This in turn creates even more of a shortage of qualified facilities for children of working parents. For some, without day care, they have to make the decision to either work or leave children unsupervised.

“They’re not coming back. Since day cares are bound to certification with certain staff to child ratios that means that providers are not operating at full capacity because they don’t have enough staff to fill the child slots,” Kerschner said.

Another problem throughout the pandemic is “rolling closures,” where a classroom or a whole day care closes for a period of time to quarantine.

“Because of the nature of COVID, you don’t know that until the day of or the night before, or the morning of when you’re taking your kids. That’s not only a loss of money for your providers, it is also trickles down to the economy, people keeping jobs,” she said.

Some of the day cares have waitlists, because of operating below capacity. In addition, some of the staff they are able to hire is inexperienced so that makes it difficult.

The Keystone Stars program through the state rates the quality of day cares and allots funding based on the stars they earn.

“If you lose six people with degrees of some sort and hire people without (a degree), then you’re not qualifying for those additional funds,” she said.

She pointed out that the state has now decided to freeze the program for a year so that day cares can try to “get their feet back under them instead of sending people out to evaluate them for a star when they don’t have their full staffing.”

“So, they are frozen at the star they were at, if they choose to do that,” she added.

Some day cares, because they need the funding, are still trying to move up in the program.

Right now, the problem is out there, receiving national attention because people are beginning to realize the economic impact of a loss of daycares. The low amount of compensation for running a day care is very expensive.

“It’s a hard industry anyway and then add the pandemic and the shortage of slots,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, Lycoming County was already in what is called a “moderate child care desert,” which means that there is a lack of available qualified child care.

“We did not have enough to start,” she explained. “Part of our goals has always been to encourage day cares to expand or help new ones to start up. But that is so much easier said than done.”

Many day cares have tapped into federal COVID funds in order to survive, but those monies have restricted uses. Because it cannot be used for ongoing expenses, some have opted to give staff bonuses as a way around that.

“When their numbers are down, their income is down. They still have their rent, their mortgage, insurances — all that doesn’t go away because you have a pandemic and your counts are down,” she said. “Many are using that to survive.”

“A lot are doing bonuses for their employees. Basically, ‘thank you for sticking around,’ “ she said.

“It’s definitely a crisis. Employers are losing employees. Parents can’t work. It affects the economy, tax dollars,” she added.

So what does this do to the families who in normal times struggles to survive while working?

The primary focus of the programs that STEP offers are parents who are working, but fall into the category of income constrained and require subsidies for day care.

“Our program when it started has always been for low-income working parents,” Kerschner said.

She explained that the subsidies are offered to parents who qualify. It’s built so that when parents do start working toward a self-sustaining income, their subsidies do not immediately cease.

“You don’t immediately get booted out of the program unless you get a major raise,” she said.

She noted that federal guidance in the last few years has been about continuity of care, so even if a parent loses a job within the year, the subsidies continue until it is time to apply for a renewal.

“Right now people are coming in for their renewals. They don’t have jobs, They don’t have prospective jobs. They don’t have child care and it’s putting a lot of strain on those goal plans — this is not where I want to be and now I’m having to dig out of going backwards,” she said.

In order for families to meet their needs, an optimum survival budget is suggested with an hourly wage of $20. Most businesses in this area do not pay their workers at that level.

So where does that leave parents who need day care?

“I feel like we got tore down to the point where the whole day care industry, to at least a certain extent. has to rebuild from the bottom up. So, it’s really going to be about hiring. You can’t really talk about expanding until you can hire, to get the staff hired. In order to do that, you have to be competitive in the job market and they’re not. That is where the stumbling block has been for years,” Kerschner said.

“When we’re looking at solutions, it has to be about getting people hiring and getting people qualified to staff the child care,” she added.

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