Daycare crisis is being felt locally

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


A “tough decision’ recently made by the Elkader Childcare and Learning Center (ECCLC) has brought renewed focus to the day care crisis impacting not just Elkader and Clayton County, but the entire state. 


It’s an issue that, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, costs Iowa more than $953 million annually because of childcare breakdowns. More than $153 million of that amount is directly tied to the loss of tax revenue due to childcare issues and results in around 52 percent of parents voluntarily leaving a job to stay home with a young child. 


The crisis is so dire that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has awarded more than $36.6 million in childcare grants to help combat worker loss and maintain a sustainable day care industry that saw 28 percent of businesses close between 2016 and 2021. Nationwide, the industry has lost nearly 90,000 jobs, being unable to return to pre-pandemic levels. 


In Iowa, this has resulted in an estimated 350,000 more kids under 12 than there are childcare spots, putting a strain on the childcare system and on parents struggling to find options, especially in rural areas where almost 35 percent of Iowans are lacking adequate childcare availability. 


Furthermore, 40 percent of Iowa’s towns have children under the age of 11 but no access to childcare, while another 47 percent have access to limited care. There are fewer slots than there are children. 


More specifically, according to the Iowa Child Care Resource & Referral, in Clayton County, there are around 565 available childcare slots for the roughly 1,100 kids younger than 11 who typically need it. 


In a series of decisions, the ECCLC recently cut part-time childcare services, shifting to providing care for just full-time families. Eleven families essentially lost day care over the past few months, as a result. 


Due to “running with the bare minimum of staff,” according to ECCLC Board President Amanda Schneider, the center implemented a change that requires enrolled families to pay for all scheduled hours, regardless of whether the child attends. The change was made to ensure the center was “scheduling appropriately.” 


In an email sent to all center families, they were alerted to the “real possibility” that a family could be contacted the day of scheduled hours that the center cannot provide care for the child. As Schneider put it, “In short, there are more children than there are daycare providers/staff at facilities.” 


“Right now, we are short staffed, just as many employers are, so we have to make tough decisions. For example, prioritize full-time families,” ECCLC Board Treasurer Jennifer Cowsert said. 


Staffing challenges have resulted in a center that can accommodate 100 children to only have 78, due to what Schneider said is a “labor shortage.” 


According to Darla Kelchen, executive director Of the Clayton County Development Group (CCDG), staffing issues throughout Clayton County have had a very real impact on local businesses and the local economy, as they struggle to obtain or retain employees. 


Moreover, Kelchen indicated the lack of day care also impacts industry growth “as well as successioning existing businesses into the next generation.” 


“It impacts business hours on when they can be open with the staff they have. Some businesses have closed early or closed an extra day due to labor shortage caused by day care shortage. This impacts the amount of local option sales tax to a community and county,” Kelchen added.


She also indicated some businesses have made changes to schedules, offering more flexibility and adding night shifts to accommodate families due to the day care shortage. 


The shortage at ECCLC is not a new issue, but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the issue, as have labor issues across the state and country.


Cowsert and Schneider both emphasized the importance of day care in the sustainability of small communities. 


Schneider stated, “A labor force is dependent upon childcare to be fully functioning in this day in age.”


Cowsert was more direct, adding, “people need to understand whether it is the center or an in-home daycare, daycare is very important to a community. That is why I stay as a volunteer on the board. From the city’s perspective, we need the daycare center to survive.”


One of the major issues impacting day care and causing the labor shortage is the hourly wage, which makes it more challenging to hire individuals. While the center did not provide its base hourly wage, according to the Iowa Women’s Foundation, the average Iowa childcare worker earns $10.73 per hour. According to ZipRecruiter, Iowa ranks 36th of 50 states nationwide in childcare salaries. 


In an effort to stay competitive, Schneider said the center is looking into options to increase pay, but the only way to do that currently is to “have a significant rate per hour increase per child.” 


As a parent, Schneider said she “doesn’t believe there is a price too steep to have confidence in leaving [her] child in the care of someone else for 40 to 50 hours a week. But let’s be realistic, incomes have limits of varying degrees for all families.”


That’s considering the cost of childcare amounts to 15.3 percent of the average Iowa family’s household income, according to Jennifer Banta, vice president for advocacy and community development for the Iowa City Area Business Partnership,  and Asha Bhandary, associate professor at the University of Iowa. 


Adding to the predicament is the fact the current system is unaffordable for more than 60 percent of working families, according to a U.S. Treasury Department analysis, prohibiting childcare providers from raising rates. 


This issue was not lost on Cowsert, who stated, “we struggle to pay competitive wages because, if we increase fees for parents any more, then parents will not be able to afford it. So then that impacts employers if their employees do not have daycare.” 


Another issue driving this problem is the high operating costs and limited budget the center operates with. But solutions are just as limited as access to childcare. 


One way the center has attempted to dampen the crisis is through grants it has received from the state. Since 2020, ECCLC has received over $187,000 in various grants, programs and PPP loans, which have gone toward personnel costs, equipment, supplies and facility improvements, along with supplementing the operating budget and recouping income losses due to the “forced closures of the center in the height of Covid.” 


The center also implemented a $6 fundraiser fee a few years ago for all families, which is used to fund general operating expenses. 


There doesn’t appear to be an easy solution to the problem, though Schneider indicated there “are several community members and businesses that have been engaged in conversation around the issue [and] solutions are being brainstormed.” 


One solution CCDG is working on, in partnership with other organizations, is a proposal to fund a childcare assessment for Clayton County.


Once funded, Kelchen said this “will help determine the needs and research options to find solutions.” 


A possible solution would be more in-home daycare providers, to take some of the burden off the center, but those are also difficult to get into and often don’t accommodate part-time families. 


Brittney Reinhart, who has run an in-home daycare in the community since 2018, said she has a waiting list of 10 families. On average, one family per month inquires about openings, which are a rare occasion. 


According to Reinhart, she’s only gone to the waiting list once or twice over the years due to current families taking available slots as their families continue to grow, leaving remaining families with few viable options. 


As of right now, the daycare problem appears to be one without an easy or quick solution. It was an eye-opening concern for Schneider during her first 12 months on the board, when she became fully aware of the problem facing the community. 


“What is concerning is that our community is just a number in a long list of communities across the state of Iowa that are facing these challenges. I want our community to know that available childcare is crucial to our local economy. The labor force and consumer rely on it,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who wants to know more about this issue to take it upon themselves to seek out research and have conversations with the families you know who need childcare for their children.”

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