Utah bill seeks to close child care gap for 'desperate' parents

A resurrected Utah bill aimed at increasing access to child care across the state prompted debate Monday about whether unlicensed home child care providers should be able to care for up to six children instead of four.

"For many years, we've not done what needed to be done, and we've gotten to the place we're at," said Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, during a House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee meeting.

Pulsipher ran a similar bill last year focused on increasing in-home provider capacity. The bill failed to pass the Senate.

The new bill, HB15, would "increase the capacity in many different ways, in many different places, because that creates choices for parents," Pulsipher said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said that during the interim, child care was "really the No. 1 priority" for the group, which worked throughout the summer to come up with solutions to the shortage.

Pulsipher noted that child care isn't just a family issue but a business issue as well, in both rural and urban areas. The bill would make important changes, she said, but many more changes will be needed to address the access shortage in the future.

Research shows that the capacity doesn't meet the need for child care in Utah, Pulsipher noted.

Even before the pandemic, Utah faced a significant gap in child care resources for working parents, according to the Division of Workforce Services. A report by the division last 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.

"We found that many parents looking for child care couldn't find it, and if they did ... the word was 'desperate,' and that's not a good place to be when you're looking for child care," Pulsipher said.

The bill would:

  • Allow community reinvestment agencies to use housing allocations to pay for the expansion of child care facilities.
  • Require the Utah Office of Child Care to use COVID-19 relief funds to provide grants to providers that contract with businesses to provide child care to their employees.
  • Remove a statutory limit to the number of infants and toddlers that a certified residential provider can care for and leave that decision in the hands of the Office of Child Care.
  • Require proposals for housing and transit reinvestment zones to prioritize access to child care.
  • Prohibit cities from placing more burdensome licensing requirements on providers than those required by the state.
  • Cap the number of children an unlicensed in-home child care provider can take care of to 12, including the provider's own children and up to six client children.

One woman told Pulsipher that, even before she got pregnant, she put her name on a waiting list for child care, the representative said.

While some larger businesses are able to create in-office child care centers, many small businesses don't have the capacity. By allowing community reinvestment agencies to use housing allocations for child care centers, the bill would pave the way to help businesses team up in providing child care, Pulsipher said.

"And that way, we could have a facility, and then it could contract out again ... to hire a child care provider to come in and run the child care for a group (of businesses) in an area ... and they could work together," Pulsipher said.

She said the idea has prompted "a lot" of interest in the business community.

When the meeting opened for public comment, David Alsop, vice president of human resources at Utah-based dental manufacturer Ultradent, said he's been "surprised" moving back to Utah by the discussions around child care in the state.

Child care centers and child care support for businesses is the "No. 1 thing we hear in our businesses," he said, explaining limitations in child care for the workforce are a major issue.

"We need to improve this. This bill is a start, and it's not just up to the business. Not all businesses can buy child care centers, they need help with infrastructure and created an economy of care in the state," he said.

Rural Utah also has a "significant" issue with child care, Pulsipher said, and at the same time the state wants businesses to locate to rural communities.

"And so what they are left usually, is in-home child care," she said. But in-home child care providers do a "fantastic" job.

Pulsipher said increasing the number of client children a provider can care for from four to six could address the rural shortage. At the same time, capping the total number of a provider's own children and client children to 12 could ensure safety, she said.

She noted that she's heard of unlicensed home providers caring for up to 24 children as there is not currently a cap on the number of their own children they can care for with clients.

The intent of the bill would be for those who are already providing in-home child care without a license to increase their capacity, not to encourage more people to become providers without a license, Pulsipher said.

But some questioned whether increasing that cap could create safety concerns.

Kristy DeGraaf, a family child care provider in Cedar City, said she supports that the bill would require cities not to place more barriers on child care centers than the state does.

But those with licenses take certain safety precautions, she said, and increasing the cap for unlicensed providers could cause issues — including creating problems with home insurance if someone gets hurt.

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Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, said she and some of her colleagues in the child care fields "feel really disappointed with the way that this bill is moving forward."

She said several child care organizations across the state oppose the increased cap as a way to solve access issues.

"Simply allowing unlicensed child care providers to care for more children without even a minor oversight required by a residential care certificate ... we can't answer that question of is it good for kids and say 'yes' with confidence," Thomas said.

The bill was ultimately held in the committee. Handy said the bill will likely be discussed again during a meeting later this week after Pulsipher has more time to talk about it with stakeholders.

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