Trina Mims never had a problem attracting teachers and other staff to Good Beginnings, the Maple Heights child care center she has owned and run for more than two decades.
Then came the pandemic. Since then, it seems no matter what Mims does, she can’t attract workers. She’s tried job listing websites. Word of mouth. A sign in the window of the center in the Southgate USA strip mall. None have brought the candidates she needs to reopen three classrooms closed since the early days of the pandemic. The center has a long waitlist of families, some waiting months for spots to open.
“We’ve done everything short of sending out smoke signals in hopes of finding people who want to work,” she said. “I’m sure I’m not the only person who is experiencing this.”
Mims isn’t. There are nearly 20% fewer child care slots available in Northeast Ohio than there were in January 2020, even though demand hasn’t decreased. This finding comes from a survey of child care providers by Cleveland-based Starting Point, a nonprofit focused on child and youth issues. Overall capacity is mainly down because of 2,500 vacant child care jobs, most of which were filled before Ohio officially entered the pandemic in March 2020. The vacancies mean providers have had to waitlist or turn away families.
Child care center directors and others surveyed attribute the staffing shortage to a lack of qualified candidates. There is a major reason for the lack of candidates, the survey released in January found. Most child care centers can’t compete with employers in other fields, such as large online retailers, which began raising wages early in the pandemic. This is especially true of centers like Mims’ that rely on vouchers and other subsidies because they serve primarily low-income and working-class families.
The pandemic amplified the long-standing issue of low wages among child care employees. The survey of 200-plus providers found the average hourly wage for employees, including teachers, ranged from $12 to $15. (Child care teachers aren’t required to have college degrees. Many programs require teachers to either hold a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, often as part of Ohio’s Step Up To Quality rating system.) Since government data on the child care staffing shortages hasn’t been released, many consider Starting Point’s survey to be the best snapshot of what is occurring locally in child care. Though the survey was open to all child care programs, the vast majority of respondents received subsidies.
This is perhaps the longest and most severe child care staffing shortage ever in Greater Cleveland, according to everyone Sigal Cleveland interviewed for this article. They range from workers to people who have studied the child care field for years. The staffing shortage was also fueled by vacancies created when Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, who were a sizable percentage of employees at many Greater Cleveland child care centers, left during the early days of the pandemic.
“We built this quality system based on wages that weren’t that competitive,” said Starting Point’s President and CEO Nancy Mendez. “It wasn’t a huge issue.Then COVID came and what it did was definitely expose the weakness in having a low-wage child care system. You have sectors, like restaurants and customer service, offering salaries of $20 and above. This is devastating the early child care system.”
(Child care providers, who usually haven’t received public funding, may soon be in a similar predicament to counterparts that have relied on subsidies. Congress approved $24 billion in pandemic funding, due to expire in September, which providers who haven’t traditionally relied on public funding were able to tap. They often used it for raises, according to a recent report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York City. It said if Congress doesn’t approve additional funding, 2,111 child care programs in Ohio could close. )
The longer the child care worker shortage continues, the greater potential it has to harm families and providers. When parents can’t get their children into a center, they often have to rely on makeshift child care. Some of these arrangements are now fraying because they were only meant to be temporary. Not having reliable child care has potentially undermined the educational growth of children and the job stability of their parents.
And 60% of providers surveyed said lower enrollment, most often triggered by the staffing shortages, has negatively impacted their center’s bottom line.
Low wages, high consequences
Before the pandemic, many of the jobs that have drawn former child care workers to other fields paid salaries similar to those in child care. Those employers had to raise wages as competition for workers stiffened. This was especially true early in the pandemic, as many workers voluntarily dropped out of the labor force. Most of the providers surveyed and their counterparts don’t have the option to raise wages. Their budgets are primarily based on what they get from public subsidies that aren’t designed with staffing shortages in mind.
Finding workers continues to be difficult for many employers, even those not in child care, because of Ohio’s strong post-pandemic labor market. The state’s unemployment rate was 3.3% in July, the lowest since 1976.
Robert Fischer, director of the Center on Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University, said the potential for child care staffing shortages to continue will exist until public policy addresses workers’ low wages. He said it isn’t just child care that is struggling to attract workers. The low-paying youth-serving sector, including residential facilities, is also dealing with staffing shortages.
“As essential workers, they’re highly vulnerable to the other parts of the economy that can pay more,” he said. “We can’t expect people to sacrifice themselves just because they happen to love to work with children.”
Fischer said the pandemic exposing the institutional frailties of subsidized child care may end up having a silver lining. It has highlighted the issue of low wages, and pandemic funding has “spurred a lot of innovation” aimed at finding solutions. Now that most of the funding has ended, or will end soon, the challenge will be finding a way to make some of these innovations permanent.
There are local attempts to make higher child care wages permanent. For example, a local Head Start agency has found a way to use some of its federal funding to give $3-an-hour raises to staff and is awaiting final government approval. Some nonprofits are working on getting philanthropic and other funding for a pilot project that would give raises to local child care workers.
Ohio’s Hero Pay initiative was a federally funded program designed to retain child care workers and reward them for being essential workers during the pandemic. Eligible workers incrementally received up to a total of $3,000. Most received their last payments in the spring.
Beth See-Bogarty, a Head Start teacher at William Patrick Day Early Learning Center in Cleveland, received Hero Pay. A relative told her about the program, and she then brought it to the attention of administrators. See-Bogarty said that since she has only a few years to work before retirement, Hero Pay served more as a bonus than a retention incentive. She believes the pay motivated some of her younger colleagues to stay in their jobs.
See-Bogarty said the extra “money was really great,” especially in a time of high inflation. But for her, the pay had greater meaning.
“I just love children,” she said. “I just love the life of being a teacher. For the first time, my role as an educator really felt valued and appreciated.”
From 10 to 7 classrooms
The Help Wanted sign in the window at Good Beginnings came down several weeks ago when Mims had the windows washed. She hasn’t bothered to put it back up. The sign proved little more than ornamentation.
Mims is even losing faith in placing ads on job listing websites. What for years was a sure way of finding good candidates has now proved lacking.
“I don’t even know why I keep going back to it,” she said. “It’s just wasting money.”
Good Beginnings had operated 10 classrooms for years. Now there are only seven because Mims can’t find staff. Only five classrooms were open during the early days of the pandemic. When the economy reopened, some of the older teachers didn’t return, often not wanting to risk getting COVID. Mims soon found out that replacing them and others who ended up leaving would be difficult.
Erica Parker, the Good Beginnings office administrator, remembers life before the pandemic, when “there were floods of teachers wanting to work here.” She agrees with the survey’s findings about the difficulty of finding qualified candidates.
“Some of them looked good on paper, but when it came to interacting with the children or interacting with the staff, they just didn’t work well,” she said. “It’s been difficult to find somebody who is really willing to stay and actually loves what they do.”
The center has just under 120 students, and nearly all of those families use vouchers to send the children there. Mims starts teachers at about $15 an hour, a rate based on what the center receives from vouchers and state reimbursements for serving low-income and working-class families.
“We’ve tried to make sure that our pay rate is competitive, but we can only pay as much as we can make,” Mims said.
She smiles and says that even the fringe benefits of “hugs, lots of smiles and plenty of love from the kiddos” aren’t enough to compete with the salaries employers in other sectors can offer.
Mims accurately described some of Good Beginnings’ fringe benefits. She barely entered one classroom before a cluster of three-year-olds greeted her with smiles and hugs.
Mims said since most families pay with vouchers, raising rates to support higher wages isn’t an option. Parker said it is a constant struggle for families to pay weekly voucher co-payments, which are often less than $20.
So the three classrooms will remain closed, even though demand remains high.
Debra Small was on the waitlist six months before she received the call that Good Beginnings had space for her twin toddler boys. While she waited, spots had become available at other centers. She declined them, convinced that the care her twins would have received at those places would have been far below what her other children had received at Good Beginnings.
“I contacted my village and let them know that they had to start villaging,” she said. “Godparents, my dad, my mother-in-law – we just had to switch our schedules around to make it work.”
Since she works in the family business, Small had more flexibility than most. Still, moving off the waitlist was a big relief. She no longer had to worry about constantly patching together child care arrangements and feeling that she might have been imposing upon relatives to babysit.
Mims can’t help but think how parents like Small wouldn’t have to wait so long for a spot if a program like Hero Pay still existed.
“I think Hero Pay should still be in effect, more so now than ever, because there’s such a shortage of teachers,” she said. “We need to give them some type of incentive to want to continue to be in this profession.”
Working on Solutions
If staff shortages continue to mount, many fear an already tattered child care system may be headed for ruin. Because of this, many believe it is now pivotal to use the successes of pandemic innovations as a springboard to devising lasting solutions.
“It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that this career path is accessible and able to sustain families, so that we can get new workers,” said Kara Porter, Starting Point’s executive vice president.
Starting Point and the Fund for Our Economic Future are working on a pilot to secure philanthropic and other funding to provide raises for child care teachers and other staff. She said similar programs exist in Washington, D.C., and Boston. Porter said they are hoping to raise $3 to $4 million, with the intention of bringing child care salaries closer to what many school districts pay.
“Parity is anything between a minimum living wage of $15 an hour all the way up to $35 an hour depending on role, education level, and years of experience,” she said.
Starting Point is also in charge of distributing some remaining pandemic-era funding. The City of Cleveland has allotted Starting Point $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to give as bonuses and retention incentives to workers at subsidized child care centers in the city. As of the end of July, the nonprofit had distributed $115,000 to 235 staff members at more than 50 child care programs in the City of Cleveland.
Cleveland-based Step Forward, one of the largest Head Start providers in Ohio, is seeking final approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to give $3-an-hour raises to staff. The nonprofit intends to do this by reallocating some of its federal funding and combining it with cost of living adjustment increases, said Angela Graves, Step Forward’s director of communications and outreach. She said not trying to replace lost Hero Pay would have been problematic.
“The cost of living has affected everyone, especially teachers,” she said. “Step Forward recognizes that and acknowledges that the value of this resource has become quite integral for so many individuals and families, including our own staff.”
Step Forward offered $1,500 bonuses to employees, which was in addition to what they received in Hero Pay, said Antoinette Hawthorne, the early childhood education service manager. She believes raises and other incentives have played a role in retaining and attracting staff. Several former employees have asked to return, including those who had taken jobs in other industries.
“I think that the culture that we have here is different,” she said. “We try to be a family-oriented workplace, and serving families is part of our mission.”
Funding at heart of the issue
Key to finding a permanent fix to staffing shortages is making sure that public subsidies provide enough money for competitive wages, said those Signal Cleveland interviewed.
“The real solution has got to be long-term and come from the state and from the federal government,” said Mendez of Starting Point. “There has to be an understanding of the value of child care, and not just in terms of the child’s success in education. It’s a lifeline for many parents, who desperately need affordable child care so that they can go to work and prosper.”
Fischer of CWRU said Ohio has demanded higher standards for child care providers, but public funding has not kept up.
“I think our appetite for quality is very high, but civically, we’re not willing to pay for it,” he said.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services considers “child care a priority,” said Bill Teets, the department’s communications director, said Ohio isn’t alone in attracting and retaining child care workers. It’s a national issue because of a tight labor market. He said Ohio has used federal pandemic era money and other funding to assist child care centers, including in the areas of staffing and growing capacity.
In July, Ohio increased the rates it pays programs that accept publicly funded child care, such as vouchers. For example, rates increased up to 9% for child care centers, Teets said.
“Our child care professionals are critical to ensuring we have healthy thriving children and essential to our continued economic development and leading edge nationally,” he wrote in an email to Signal Cleveland. “We will continue to look for new ways to partner in this area.”
With the staff shortage apparently not close to ending, Mims’ thoughts sometimes turn to how she will repurpose the three empty classrooms.
“We’re working on turning one into a library,” she said. “Maybe with another one, we’ll knock a wall out and just expand the adjacent classroom and make it bigger. I don’t know. We’re still playing with some ideas.”