Despite living close to four professionally staffed child care centers, Kerry Gant struggled to find care for her three grandchildren last year.
“None of them ever have spots,” Gant, a Brockport high school teacher, says.
Gant is not alone. For some time now, parents, grandparents and foster parents around the state have had difficulty finding child care for the children under their roofs.
“There’s a need for care options at all ages,” says Peter Nabozny, director of policy for the Children’s Agenda.
A long-term, general decline of the industry, pandemic-driven losses at providers, staffing shortages and the high cost of child care have contributed to the problem.
A declining industry
Employment in the child care industry has steadily declined nationwide in the last decade. A recent Center for Law and Social Policy report found that child care employment peaked at 631,000 in 2011 and then began to fall. By 2019, the industry had lost 69,000 employees, a drop of 11 percent.
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the slide. Large numbers of parents kept their kids home, daycare providers were unable to operate while protecting children from infection, and those working in the field sought other positions.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of people employed in child care fell by another 67,000 workers. By February 2022, total employment in the sector was 12.4 percent below the pre-pandemic level. In contrast, overall employment fell only 1.9 percent.
As the ranks of child care workers fell nationwide, so did the number of providers. A recent Child Care Aware of America study found that nearly 16,000 daycare centers and licensed family child care programs permanently closed their doors between December 2019 and March 2021.
CCAoA laid part of the blame for closures on the unpredictable attendance of children during the pandemic, the higher cost of operating during the crisis, rising labor costs and razor-thin profit margins.
The local picture
The New York State Office of Children and Family Services lists nine basic types of child care programs that are licensed or registered to operate in the state. Each offers a different type of care and is subject to different state regulations. Three types provide most of the child care in Monroe County: family-based, group family and center-based programs. Family-based programs operate out of providers’ homes.
“If you’re a family provider … you could have up to eight children in care at a time,” says Jeffrey Pier, CEO of the Child Care Council, which provides training and other assistance to child care providers in Monroe, Livingston and Wayne counties.
At the other end of the spectrum, center-based programs are run by dedicated nonprofits or businesses. They also have their own buildings, or spaces within buildings, a much more complex set of government regulations to follow and a higher limit on the number of children in their care.
“You could have up to 300 kids,” Pier says. “It’s a much larger operation.”
Monroe County’s child care system has shrunk in recent years.
“We definitely lost spaces over the last two years due to COVID,” Pier says. “A lot of programs closed and a lot of people were having trouble with staffing.”
A recent Child Care Council study found that between March 2020 and May 2021, the number of child care programs operating in the county fell by 20 to 658, he says. During that period, the number of slots those programs offered fell to 23,538, a loss of 1,825 potential openings. That’s nearly 8 percent of the total.
Already under pressure
Though that’s a relatively small loss, the local child care industry was already under a strain. A New York State Council on Children and Families map shows that most of the Finger Lakes region’s census tracts are “child care deserts”—meaning there are more than three children under the age of five for every child care slot. Though Monroe County has fared better than its neighbors, substantial portions of the county suffer from a similar deficit.
Those who have children 5 years old and older may not fare any better. This year, Monroe County’s schools have 45,821 children in first through sixth grade who could potentially need some form of child care either before or after school. That’s nearly double the number of potential openings that are typically available.
CLASP’s report attributes some of the losses of child care workers to the low pay they receive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a child care worker in 2021came to just $13.22 an hour, or $27,497.60 a year—far below $38,266 per year, the average annual living expenses for a single person in America.
Low pay has led some local child care workers to look elsewhere for higher paychecks.
“They’re the most underpaid workforce out there,” Pier says.
A lead teacher in charge of a classroom at a local child care center averages just $15.78 an hour, he notes. Assistant teachers average just $13.86 an hour. Through growing number of strikes across the nation, daycare workers are calling attention to the important role they play in the nation’s economy and demanding better working conditions, including non-poverty level pay.
“Most of the … workers every day are saying, ‘I could go to McDonalds and make two to three dollars an hour more, and not have any of the stress,’” Pier says.
According to the nationwide employment site Indeed.com, the pay for an evening-shift crew team member closer at a Rochester McDonald’s restaurant starts at $15 an hour. Other positions can pay as much as $28.95 an hour.
Many child care providers may have difficulty paying the kinds of wages that attract new employees, or keep their current ones on the job.
Andrea McKenna of Expressive Beginnings Child Care, which operates three child care centers in the Rochester area, agrees that the work doesn’t pay well.
“It’s extremely rewarding, but it can be challenging,” says McKenna, who runs EBCC’s Greece center. “The pay is not as high as some other positions that you could have that have less responsibility.”
While McKenna’s center is fully staffed, she said finding quality workers is becoming a bigger challenge.
That’s because daycare is a very tight-margin business, Nabozny says. Those at the lower end of the profit margin scale might not be able to pay wages that attract and retain staff while keeping tuition down.
“If we want to raise wages for staff, we have to increase tuition,” McKenna says.
In recent years, EBCC has done just that, primarily because of increases in the minimum wage.
“We’ve averaged, in the past six years, a 3 percent increase every year,” McKenna says. “I think we’ve kept our increases lower than typical.”
From 2016 to 2021, the minimum wage rose from $9.70 to $13.20 an hour outside of New York City, Long Island and Westchester County, a more than 36 percent increase.
Higher tuition could squeeze parents who are already straining to pay for their children’s care. Using data from 2019, CCAoA determined that the average annual cost of child care in the U.S. came to as much as $9,600 per child. That is 11 percent of a married couple’s income and 34 percent of the income of a single parent.
Figures regarding the local cost of child care are difficult to come by, but OCFS data sheds some light.
Every three years, OCFS surveys a representative sample of providers asking how much they charge for care. It then uses those figures to calculate child care subsidies in different parts of the state. Monroe County and eight other counties fall into what OCFS has designated as Group 2.
Nabozny says he obtained the raw data from OCFS’s 2018 survey, the last one conducted. Using those figures, he determined that the median cost of sending a child to a Group 2 child care center that year ranged from $200 a week for a school-age child to $259 for an infant.
Based on those figures, the cost of daycare for a school-age child could come to $10,400 a year. Rochester residents with the city’s median income of $37,395 could end up paying almost 28 percent of that amount to a child care provider, absent of government financial assistance.
County residents who are seeking help with daycare costs can apply to the Monroe County Department of Human Services for subsidies. Under the OCFS guidelines, eligible working families can receive $175 to $280 per week toward the cost of daycare, depending on the age of the child and type of care needed.
Families must meet income standards to qualify for the subsidies. In February, the state raised the income eligibility level from the previous 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent.
“A family of four making less than $83,250 now qualifies on the basis of income for assistance for child care,” Nabozny says.
Last December, Monroe County projected that an average 7,211 children would receive child care subsidies per month in 2022. Nabozny could not say how many more families in the county could receive subsidies under the new income standard.
Local daycare providers have also received help from the state to get through this difficult time. Last July, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration offered $1.1 billion in child care stabilization grants to eligible providers. The money could be used to cover rent or mortgages, employees’ salaries or other approved purposes.
OCFS administered the grants, which were financed by the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Coronoavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Before the application period ran out in November, 15,000 providers around the state received a total of $900 million in financial assistance.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration followed up the original aid package with another $343 million in stabilization grants that should be welcome to providers.
“There’s still some providers that are struggling with full enrollment, or program closures (due to) COVID, and the added costs associated with the pandemic,” Nabozny says.
In addition, the Hochul administration has offered Child Care Deserts Grants totaling $100 million to providers in parts of the state with a child care shortage.
Of that total, $70 million is earmarked for newly licensed programs to cover startup costs, recruit and pay their staffs, and pay other expenses. The remainder will go to existing providers who wish to expand their operations. ARPA funds fuel the grant program.
EBCC devoted much of the money it received from the first pool of stabilization funds to staff raises.
“We gave wage increases across the board to our lead teachers so that they could be well above minimum wage,” McKenna says. “Then, we did the same with our assistant teachers.”
More to be done
However, stabilization grants are not a long-term answer to the rising cost of child care, Pier says.
“The only thing that’s going to make that (positive) change is if there’s a permanent change in the law, universal health care, a change in the market rate,” he says. “There could be a higher subsidy rate to kind of offset those additional costs.”
Some of those changes could come to pass. Hochul has pledged to invest a total of $7 billion in New York’s child care industry over the next four years.
Gant has a busy work schedule and has struggled to obtain child care for her grandchildren. She teaches high school full-time, coaches sports after school, teaches or takes educational courses during the summer and volunteers hours advocating for prison reform. She’s the legal guardian of a toddler, a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old.
“I’m essentially being a single grandma,” she says.
The youngest needs to be in child care throughout the day, while the older kids require care before and after school.
When she took in the children about a year ago, Gant applied to the Monroe County Department of Human Services for aid but was denied the assistance.
“They said I didn’t have a need for child care because the kids go to Brockport Central Schools and I work for Brockport Central Schools,” she says.
Gant pointed out to her DHS worker that the different schedules of Brockport’s elementary and high schools force her to leave home before her older grandkids head off to classes. Then, she had to show that the older children needed after-school care.
“I had to provide proof that I coach, and needed those after-school hours,” Gant says.
DHS spent about 50 days making up its mind while Gant paid for child care out-of-pocket.
“That was quite a process with that, and stressful,” she says.
The county reimbursed Gant for her child care costs. It now covers 100 percent of her grandchildren’s time at a local daycare center, though she does have to cover a weekly $25 fee.
“If I were to pay out-of-pocket, there’s no way I could afford that,” Gant says.
If she could change the local child care system, Gant would open it up.
“I would give more access to child care,” she says. “We need to open up daycare centers that can service families that work off hours, that work in the evenings, that work overnight.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Data visualizations by Jacob Schermerhorn. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.