Childcare must be reinvented as part of economic recovery

Ninety licensed childcare centers in Clark County have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; no one knows how many will reopen

Child with building blocks
Courtesy of ESD 112
Mary Sisson

Lack of availability, high costs and low wages for workers have had childcare operating in crisis mode for a long time.

COVID-19 has sent this essential of business and family life into disaster mode. Ninety licensed childcare centers in Clark County have closed due to the pandemic, and no one knows how many will reopen once life returns to normal. In addition, on April 21, ESD 112 informed parents that its Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium will close June 19.

“What was already a problem is now bigger,” said Debbie Ham, executive director of Support for Early Learning and Families (SELF), which advocates for early childhood education in Southwest Washington. “This whole thing is built on sand, and now the tsunami has come through and all the sand has washed away.”

Cost is the number one problem encountered by working parents when looking at childcare, according to a survey conducted by SELF in partnership with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. Responses from 104 business leaders, representing 17,000 employees in Clark County, and 66 working parents painted a picture of how childcare impacts businesses and families here, and it wasn’t pretty. The survey wrapped up just as the coronavirus hit. More than half of respondents indicated that cost has been a significant hardship, and 13% said it prevented them from getting care.

“They’ve had to quit because the cost of childcare is more than they’re earning,” said one business leader. “This happens to almost every parent I’ve ever hired.”

“I pay more in childcare costs than in rent,” commented a Clark County parent.

“The cost of childcare to cover all the hours needed during work forces you to question if it is even feasible to work,” said another.

Full-time infant care can range from $10,000 to $16,000 a year, sometimes costing more than tuition at Washington’s public universities.

Finding care is another roadblock. Before COVID-19 hit, Southwest Washington had licensed childcare slots for only 40% of young children aged 0-5 with parents in the workforce. As of April 24, another 42% of those slots are temporarily closed, leaving 5,478 slots. Many have indicated they’re not planning to return.

“When people do have to go back to work, where are their kids going to go?” Ham said.

In the survey, close to 90% of both business leaders and working parents agreed finding childcare was difficult; 68% of parents indicated they couldn’t find slots near them, and 29% couldn’t find care that accommodated their work schedule.

Commented a parent: “We looked everywhere … to find good childcare where your child is learning and thriving. That’s hard.”

Forty-six percent of working parents were using two or more types of non-parental childcare.

“These data show that so many families are juggling multiple caregivers, which can be chaotic for both kids and their parents,” said Shannon Hoskins, data analyst with RYC Analytics, who compiled the survey findings.

Childcare affects the bottom line. In Washington, the direct costs to employers of turnover and missed work due to childcare disruption totals $2.08 billion. The state’s total estimated direct and opportunity costs — parents giving up hours, advancement or education because of childcare issues — amounts to $6.5 billion. That’s according to “The Mounting Costs of Child Care,” a report from the Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force supported by the Association of Washington Business Foundation and other agencies.

In Clark County, 57% of families with young children had a parent who turned down a job, additional work hours or a promotion, and half had turned down school or work training because of childcare. Nineteen percent had been fired due to childcare issues.

Some supports are in place that can help businesses with working parents. One is the Child Care Aware referral line, which lists potential childcare options; in the SELF survey, 38% of employers had never heard of it, and 39% of those who had were interested in using it. Flexible work schedules, popular with both employers and working parents, are another promising work support.

But the pandemic has exposed what the survey already indicated – foundational changes to childcare are needed.

Childcare business owners were struggling to keep their programs open before COVID-19, working hard and following the rules. But it’s an uphill battle. The very structure of their business bases revenues on market demand and pricing, but costs are driven by strong teaching standards and administrative requirements beyond the capacity of most programs.

Childcare must be reinvented as part of economic recovery. Our economy depends on a sustainable, high-quality childcare business model that is accessible and affordable for working families.

SELF will be working with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and Workforce Southwest Washington to ensure childcare is part of the economic recovery conversation.

Mary Sisson is the former co-owner of Kazoodles toy store in Vancouver. She serves on the board of Support for Early Learning and Families. She can be reached at sissonrm@gmail.com.

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