by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
With low pay and precarious outside support, child care centers continue to struggle to find workers, making it harder for other employers to hire the parents of young children, a new national survey finds.
And matters could get worse a year from now, when supplemental funding for child care is scheduled to run out, according to the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA) and its affiliate, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The national group conducted the survey of more than 12,000 child care centers of all sizes, including 1,173 in Wisconsin.
Providers in the survey reported widespread staff shortages as a result of pay scales that are too low to attract and retain employees. Lacking enough care workers, 45% of the Wisconsin providers said they were taking fewer children than they wanted to.
“The trends underscore what we have long known and continue to say: Significant public investment — state and federal — is essential to stabilize and support child care. Anything less will allow the ripple effects to continue to challenge providers, families, businesses, and our communities,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of WECA.
Half of Wisconsin is a child care desert, according to the association, with three times the number of children under age 5 as there are licensed child care slots.
The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment reviewed federal labor statistics and found that while the number of child care workers has been slowly increasing after dropping off sharply early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still 84,000 fewer than in February 2020, just before the pandemic’s onset.
Nearly 1 in 3 of the Wisconsin respondents in the new survey said they might quit child care work or close their child care program, with most of them citing low wages for child care providers, according to WECA. And 80% of child care workers or program operators said “burnout and exhaustion” during the pandemic made things worse for the field and made it still more difficult to keep child care workers.
In Wisconsin, the state allocated $700 million in federal pandemic relief funds that helped bolster child care providers over the last three years, most of it to help raise compensation for providers and offset operating costs for care programs.
More than 1 in 4 Wisconsin participants in the survey said that the pandemic funds kept their programs open. After the funds expire in January 2024, a third of those surveyed said they won’t be able to raise wages and salaries and might have to impose wage cuts, and more than 60% of child care program directors said they might have to increase parent fees.
WECA and a broader advocacy network that it has organized, Raising Wisconsin, are urging the Legislature to include $300 million in Wisconsin’s 2023-25 biennial budget to continue the state’s support.
This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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