Child care workers are in short supply, forcing parents to quit their jobs, too
With a four-page waiting list and a lot of space in the building, Michelle Pagano is not able to take new families on at her childcare center. The reason is simple: She can't find people to hire.
“We are struggling in bringing people on board in terms of the fact that this is not a high-paying job,” said Pagano, director of Pattycake Playhouse in Newburgh, Orange County. “Our only income is tuition, and that is the only way to pay our staff. If we raise the tuition, then it would become unaffordable for parents.”
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the childcare system in New York, leaving many day cares without staff and causing parents to confront difficult career decisions to ensure care and support for their children.
Childcare providers are facing labor shortages similar to those in other service industries — and low pay and modest benefits don't help attract more workers. Strict state-mandated staff-to-child ratios and demanding scheduling make finding qualified employees even more challenging.
In July, eight in 10 providers said they were experiencing a staffing shortage, with half saying recruiting and retaining qualified educators was harder than it had been before the pandemic, according to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Day cares struggle to meet demand
Last year, the pandemic led to a 75% staff turnover at Pattycake Playhouse in Newburgh. Now with just 25 staffers on board, Pagano hopes to hire at least five more workers.
While the center offers a slight wage raise each year when it raises tuition, there is a point that cannot be exceeded in order to keep its childcare services affordable, Pagano said.
Other providers echo Pagano’s concerns. Dureka Forbes, owner of First Steps Early Learning Day Care Academy in Middletown, Orange County, said she needs to double the number of staff in order to meet the high demand for child care.
"We have a portion in our building that is empty, but we can't provide the service because we can't find staff," Forbes said. "Even when we find someone, it's such a process because we need to train them and do a background check. It usually takes about three weeks."
Forbes said employees have higher standards now when it comes to things like family time and schedules. She said she's paying anywhere from $16 an hour to more than $20 an hour depending on degrees and certifications.
New York's worker shortage:NY businesses struggle to find employees
Where did all the workers go?:Employees retool careers after COVID
The average salary for a day care teacher in New York is $14.81 per hour, according to a survey by Indeed.
To meet the needs of working parents, childcare centers may operate for most of the day, often from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pagano said.
Pagano said her program needs teachers and teaching assistants with flexible schedules, and particularly staff to take care of infants and toddlers.
In addition, finding qualified teachers is a lot more of a struggle. To work as a head teacher, a candidate must have certification and experience, which often results in an expectation of higher pay.
Many providers said they want more governmental support and funding to boost their programs.
“We had a lot of support throughout the pandemic, like the emergency funding to help us open,” Pagano said. “But going forward, in order to keep high-quality staff on board, we really need some kind of funding to help offer them some benefits or an increase in pay. Something to motivate them to want to be in this field.”
'We are all doing the best that we can'
For Sara Walrath, going back to her day care center job near Rochester after it reopened last spring was a tricky logistical process that involved prioritizing her children as they navigated their own COVID-related hurdles.
“My nerves are frayed, and I am always on edge,” said Walrath of Webster, Monroe County, a mother of three. “With the ongoing pandemic, we are all doing the best that we can, but the unknown factors keep my anxiety high.”
Walrath worked full-time at a local day care center when the pandemic hit in March 2020, and when the center reopened two months later, Walrath decided to stay home with her three children to guide them through the remainder of the school year and oversee their summer activities.
She worked part-time last school year, since everything was in transition and her children attended some virtual and some in-person classes.
Just before the current school year started, Walrath increased her hours at work, moving from two days a week on the job back to a five-day work week — although she is not back to her pre-COVID full-time hours.
She’s thankful for the job and the new schedule.
“It offers me flexibility if I need to get home or go get a sick kid,” she said. “I’m still working my way back to the hours I covered before the pandemic, but I am still not where I was. And that’s OK.”
The siblings — 7-year-old Charlotte, 10-year-old Sammie and 13-year-old Brody — returned to Webster schools five days a week this fall.
Each morning, Walrath wakes her elementary-age daughters and shepherds them onto the bus. She rouses her teenage son, but transfers parenting duties to her husband, Lance, so she can arrive at work by her 8:30 start time. She ends her daily shift by 2 p.m. to ensure she’s home in time to greet her daughters at the end of each school day.
The normalcy is improving, but it feels like another transition year, she confessed.
“But I also wonder if it will ever get back to normal, or if this is just how it is now,” she said.
Parents grapple with jobs, lack of child care
Parents have had to practice flexibility as waves of COVID-19 ebbed and flowed in New York over the last 18 months, causing changes in their work schedules and child care options.
Crystal Thousand-Peairs' daughter, Isabella, now 16 months, was born premature in June 2020, several months into the pandemic.
After a brief maternity leave, Thousand-Peairs, of East Rochester, returned to work full-time as a surgical technician at a local hospital for about a year, often working non-traditional hours for 12-hour shifts.
The couple planned for Isabella, and her child care, well before the pandemic hit. But plans fell through.
Isabella’s designated caregiver fell ill and was no longer able to watch over a young child. Thousand-Peairs’ husband, Daemon Peairs, a bartender, was laid off when many businesses closed last spring due to the pandemic. He was the stay-at-home parent and was their daughter’s primary caregiver during her first year.
In July of this year, Crystal Thousand-Peairs left her job.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but without reliable child care options, she needed to resign from a position she loved to become Isabella's full-time caregiver.
“I loved my job and my coworkers,” she said. “It’s hard to let your career go to stay at home,” even when you have a good reason.
Thousand-Peairs made the switch when her husband landed a job as a maintenance worker at an apartment complex over the summer.
“It’s a struggle financially,” she said, adding that she cleans houses one day a week to contribute to the household income. But in turn, she is less stressed since left her high-pressure job.
Although she had hoped to drop to part-time, it wasn’t feasible given the nontraditional and inconsistent hours she would be required to work and the lack of child-care options.
On top of expensive rates and securing a reliable caregiver who could work with her unconventional schedule, Thousand-Peairs was also concerned about keeping her daughter safe in someone else’s care. She cited pandemic-related concerns as well as general safety issues.
“I have every intention of going back when the time is right,” Thousand-Peairs said. In the meantime, she loves spending her days with her daughter. “She is my only child. I didn’t want to miss this time with her. So that’s the silver lining in all of this.”
Helu Wang covers education for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown. Contact her at Hwang@gannett.com or on Twitter at @HeluWangTHR.
Contact Victoria Freile at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vfreile and Instagram @vfreile. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.