SALT LAKE CITY — Most child care centers in the Beehive State survived 2020, but the pandemic made retaining employees difficult, jeopardizing the state’s already-limited child care capacity.
“It has been a bit of a roller coaster. At the beginning, there were a lot of temporary closures of child care programs. Not permanent, but temporary closures that happened when enrollment decreased,” said Tracy Gruber, Division of Workforce Services Child of Office Care director.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Utah faced a significant gap in child care resources for working parents, according to the Division of Workforce Services. A report by the division in March found the state needs 274 more licensed-center child care programs and 1,258 licensed-family child care programs, which provide in-home care.
One legislator hopes to respond to that gap during the upcoming legislative session.
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is sponsoring a bill that would create a tax exemption for child care centers.
“We don’t have enough child care. COVID has been hard on child care centers, so I think we need to do something to bring our child care capacity up to demand,” Fillmore said.
Addressing a shortage
In March, according to the Department of Workforce Services report, there were nearly 86,000 children age 6 and under who lacked access to child care in Salt Lake and Utah counties. Another 72,000 children lacked access to child care around the state.
“There’s more parents working full time in the state. Over 50% of the children under age 6 are living in homes where there is a child care need, meaning that the parents are working,” Gruber said.
“I do think that if you looked straight at the number of children who are under the age of 6 where parents are working, Utah is higher than a lot of states. I think Utah is unique in that we seem to have tighter communities and families in terms of addressing child care needs, seem to have more options than going to a traditional child care program when they are working to address their child care needs,” she said.
But child care remains “a critical piece of Utah’s economic infrastructure, and as the economy recovers after the pandemic and people aren’t returning to work, we need to make sure that Utah’s child care system remains healthy,” according to Gruber.
Travis Allred, father of a 2 1/2-year-old girl, like many others has juggled work and child care duties along with his wife during the pandemic.
When they moved in with Allred’s in-laws while the couple builds a new home, they pulled their daughter out of her child care center due to the distance. The center had cost the family about $450 a month.
“And we weren’t anywhere near what we could’ve been paying. We were in a pretty budget-friendly center ourselves. From a consumer (perspective), it’s prohibitively expensive and I’m super grateful I’m able to work from home and juggle and balance work with my one kid,” Allred said.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do it with two kids without somebody stepping out of the workforce and being home more often, or having some family connection who is able to watch children for free, especially during the pandemic,” he said.
But he expressed gratitude that working from home has allowed the couple to make it work.
“During coronavirus, I’ve just been assuming the child care portion of those duties on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” Allred said, while his wife works as a dental hygienist.
“Whenever I have a Zoom meeting, my daughter will be right next to me,” he said. “It’s kind of been challenging to navigate that.”
Allred, who serves as early learning project manager for nonprofit Envision Utah, said parents have also needed to adjust to their children’s schools often closing due to the pandemic.
Some child care centers in Salt Lake County have turned part of their operations into virtual classrooms, he said, enabling kids to attend their virtual schools while attending day care.
“Year in, year out, child care workers, child care industry as a whole has just been always ... the first ones on the battlefront. They’re taking care of our kids, and they don’t get enough resources from us as a society in general, I think. It’s really hard,” Allred said.
Most child care centers already operate on “low margins,” said Elizabeth Garbe, senior director of public policy and government relations at United Way of Salt Lake.
“And they do amazing work and have had to go to extraordinary lengths during the pandemic to be sure that they are keeping the children and their staff safe at this time,” Garbe said.
To put wage issues into perspective, Simon Bolivar, administrator of the Division of Child Care Licensing Program, explained that most workers at child care centers get paid less per hour than many who work at a fast-food restaurant.
“It’s been a fight for many years to have to recognize child care providers as crucial employees. Their field is so important but so low-paid that any help anyone could give to promote this profession and really reward them for what they do would be beneficial. I am totally opposed to low-pay rates for child care providers, and that’s what they get,” he said.
Child care providers also play a role in providing early childhood education, Bolivar said.
“Those that go into child care and stay longer than three years, they do it not because of the pay, they do it because they love kids,” he noted.
“I love what I do. I just love that I can provide a place for children to be safe for at least 10 hours of each day. And our business as our business is to provide families, children and our team with a loving, high-quality place to be throughout the time that we’re with us,” said Jody Zabriskie, owner of A to Z Building Blocks in Utah County.
Effects of the pandemic
The state chose not to close any facilities during the pandemic, and instead let owners decide whether or not they wanted to stay open, Bolivar said.
Before COVID-19, Utah already had rules in place for centers regarding sanitation, hand-washing, ratios and group sizes that allowed the centers to stay open safely, he said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing.
“We have seen the levels of stress and anxiety increase through our whole program with parents, children and child care providers. It is not easy, but that’s what we have,” Bolivar said.
Utah diverted some federal pandemic aid to child care center across the state, which Gruber says helped many weather loss of revenue during the pandemic.
Finding and retaining workers is always a problem in the field, Gruber said, “but it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
“Because as you can imagine, a lot of the employees in child care programs are women, and a lot of women are the ones who are staying home with their children if they are not going to school every day for whatever reason, or if they’re concerned about the health of their kids,” Gruber said.
Zabriskie said she faces a balancing act of offering affordable care to parents while trying to pay her employees a living wage.
“To be able to afford the quality care and being able to give the parents affordable care, but also giving employees raises is where you have the challenge, because the numbers don’t add up. Your slim margins really only allow you to pay someone between $9 and $11,” Zabriskie said.
During the pandemic, centers have also dealt with inconsistent enrollment as parents have started working from home or lost their jobs, or as infection rates soared.
“And right now, the ongoing stress of wearing masks in classrooms, and the ongoing stress children (are going through) in general ... it can be extremely difficult to bring new people on,” Zabriskie said.
She said she’s experienced unprecedented turnover among employees during the pandemic at her four child care centers, jeopardizing her ability to provide the best care possible.
“We don’t want to just put children in a setting where they’re not going to thrive,” Zabriskie said.
“These families that know they want their children in a high-quality learning environment, they’re really struggling, yet they’re willing to do everything they possibly can to keep their children in a secure environment,” she said.
Garbe described the child care shortage issue as one affecting the well-being of the whole state.
“It helps parents be able to go to work and know that their children are somewhere safe and being taken care of. So it’s going to be really important for us as a state to look at what policies do we need to put in place so we can make sure that we’re able to rebound from the recession that we’re in and support families so that they can also rebound,” Garbe said.