DENVER — Almost two years into the pandemic, parents are still battling a major challenge: how to work and take care of kids, especially when their child care facilities continuously shut down intermittently because of COVID-19 or a lack of staffing.
Taking a closer look at the problem, it's clear the issue goes beyond the pandemic. There's inequality in the system.
Denver's Early Childhood Council recently did a survey of 136 child care providers. The survey revealed 70% had to close one or more classrooms in the last two months, generally due to staffing. Additionally, 60% said they were down one to four teachers daily. This could be because of an open spot the child care centers are still working to hire for, COVID exposures, people getting sick and vacation.
"If you have six rooms, staffed well, 12 staff, two for each classroom," explained Dora Esparza, the business services manager with the council. "If two call in, you have to close a classroom. You don't have the humans qualified to be in those classrooms."
It's a lack of stability for families and a lack of stability and income for providers.
"I think people underestimate the impact child care services has on the economy as a whole," said Esparza. "If people can't get care for their child, I don't know how they will go to work."
Ryan Gedney, a senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said across the country there has been some recovery when it comes to the number of jobs within child care services, but it has plateaued in the last couple of months. The data he pulled was for early childhood care jobs outside of kindergarten through twelfth grade. He said Colorado is following a similar pattern.
"It's not as a strong of a recovery as other industries," said Gedney.
He said there are several factors including wages and exposure to many people during a global pandemic.
Esparza also said they've gone through waves of families putting their children in child care centers and then pulling them out depending on COVID case surges.
The problem goes beyond the domino effect of COVID that Coloradans are well acquainted with -- staff falling sick and having to quarantine, and families getting nervous about using child care services during surges.
There are deep rooted issues much older than this pandemic.
It has to do with pay.
"You can't pay an ECE (early childhood education) teacher what they are worth, what teachers at other grades and ages make," said Esparza. "That's a sustained funding source we don't really have."
Esparza then explained the impact of the minimum wage increase in Denver to just over $15 an hour this month, and $12.78 an hour for tipped employees.
"That's created quite a hardship. Most ECE teachers were paid below that. Before the average was $13, $14. It's very low wages -- primarily female driven field, a lot of minorities work in ECE. There are definitely some equity issues," said Esparza.
Bringing everyone up to scale was difficult, too.
"It was a struggle for a lot of providers to raise the whole scale of what they paid. When minimum wage went up to $15, you might have someone who's been there for 20 years making $16. Well, how do you increase them equitably since the whole scale shifted? There's no funding really for that sustainable salary piece."
Esparza said there are short bursts of funding and the council is working with providers on how to use that money to help with retention through incentives like bonuses.
"We can't increase salaries on a long-term way with short-term funding," she said.
"We all need to give each other some grace and leniency right now because it's a struggle everywhere."
Colorado's Department of Human Services also said they are working on long-term funding as well, writing:
"Both through federal stimulus funding and the ongoing funding we receive we are investing in the workforce. These funds will help us to truly grow and transform the early childhood workforce long into the future.
We recently opened the application for all licensed child care providers in Colorado to apply for Stabilization Grants. These funds can go to staff pay and benefits, like raises, bonuses, health insurance, and more.
Additionally, we are providing funding to raise the salaries of teachers in programs that accept children enrolled in the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP).
These strategies are part of a significant amount of funding we are putting toward supporting the early childhood workforce. Some of the other strategies include offering free or reduced cost educational opportunities, including community college classes and child care director training."
Turnover in early childhood education was high before the pandemic and continued after COVID due to wages while also requiring qualifications to become an early childhood educator. Some positions also don't have benefits like health insurance. When other industries started offering higher salaries and benefits to be competitive, especially in the last few months of the pandemic, some teachers opted to apply for those positions.
When it comes to increasing salaries for early childhood educators, that cost would be passed along to parents in tuition, which can already be expensive.