Utah's Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson has sat at and pulled up chairs to many different tables, but on Tuesday she opted for the floor.
She sat with a group of young children, gathered around her on a rug at the Creative Learning Academy, as she read aloud to them. The children pointed, wiggled and complained they couldn’t see the pictures as Henderson flipped through the book.
Before entering the classroom, the lieutenant governor spoke with the children in the hallway who beamed from the attention. One excitedly pointed to the different planets on his T-shirt, while Henderson nodded.
"Did you know there’s millions of stars?" he asked.
The interaction is just one example of the many conversations child care workers carry on with enthusiasm daily. The early years of a child's life are vital in their health and development, making quality early education and interaction crucial.
While many parents recognize the impact or importance child care workers have on their children, the vitality of the industry was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We all witnessed this incredible dedication from child care workers during a period of significant hardship," Henderson said. "Child care workers are front-line workers and we have been in awe seeing how they stepped up. We express our profound thanks and appreciation to them. Their work is critical to our children, to our families, to employers, and their dedication is honorable."
In a show of appreciation, she announced that the state will be offering a one-time $2,000 bonus to eligible child care employees across the state. The bonus is expected to benefit over 12,000 individuals across Utah.
"I left a job that paid me more to come so that I can come and help make a difference in these young lives and hopefully impact," said Emma Otteson, pre-kindergarten teacher at the academy. "This bonus will impact child care workers across the whole state of Utah in so many positive ways, and I know it will have an impact on me as well."
The state of Utah and the Office of Child Care received over $108 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations that were mostly directed toward child care providers through operation grants during the pandemic. As the state emerged from the pandemic, the operation grants were replaced with stabilization grants for child care providers through September 2023.
The remaining $20 million of the COVID-19 relief funds will be used for the child care worker bonuses.
"While Utah has transitioned from the pandemic response to a steady state, the pandemic’s looming effects on the economy have really taken a toll on the child care industry," said Henderson. "There's a countrywide labor shortage and this has made retaining and attracting child care workers even more challenging for providers than ever before."
The labor shortage has affected industries statewide, but in child care the impact can extend beyond the business and staff.
"We are dealing with little humans and so when people get burnt out, when people decide to leave the industry, it impacts children, which has a huge impact," said Jessica Lloyd, Creative Learning Academy owner. "There have been people who have been burnt out and tired from time to time — we all are — but we've tried to educate and really help people take care of themselves."
And while labor shortages and burnout among essential workers following COVID-19 have had a significant toll on the child care industry, Utah also grappled with child care prior to the onset of the pandemic.
"A lot of people aren't working because they can't find child care or they can't find a place that they like, or the waiting lists are too long," Lloyd said. "It's hard for parents, it's hard for providers, because we do want to help everybody that we can."
Utah is considered a child care desert with 77% of all residents living in areas with few or limited options, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. The center defines a child care desert as "any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots."
The gap in child care resources for working parents was further demonstrated by a Division of Workforce Services report last March. The division found that the state needs 274 more licensed-center child care programs and 1,258 licensed-family child care programs, which provide in-home care.
The one-time bonus may help in addressing the child care labor shortage but more long-term solutions are needed.
"Ultimately, it would be really nice if the education industry as a whole, whether it's early childhood or kindergarten, first grade ... it would be really nice if there was more funds available for the teachers specifically," said Lloyd. "We've tried to stay really competitive with our wages and that has really helped our teachers, but it's really morphed our business."
More information on the bonus is available on the Office of Child Care's Ongoing Pandemic Support webpage. Child care employees must register an account at CareAboutChildCare.utah.gov starting July 19. All applications are due by Aug. 31.