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Hiring crisis in child care: 'We're stuck in a market that's broken'

In western Massachusetts, the cost and availability of child care can be a major barrier to employment for some parents. During the pandemic, it has become an even bigger problem, in part because day care providers themselves are having a harder time recruiting employees.

Standing in a circle, preschoolers at the Mt Carmel Early Education and Care Center in Chicopee are flapping a multi-colored round cloth they call a parachute, and running under it.

Teachers Mariah Baez and Tiannah Youmans are helping them learn to play together.

"What else we can do with the parachute?" Youmans asked the children.

"Twirl around," one child answered.

"We can twirl around?" Youmans replied. "OK! Look, everyone grab a side."

Sometimes the lessons come when playing together isn’t going as well.

"You’re on his foot, my love," Baez said to a preschooler on a tricycle. "Give him a minute. He’s trying to fix it." 

Both Baez and Youmans said they love their work. But, overall, child care providers said they’re having trouble hiring staff.

Stephen Huntley is executive director of Valley Opportunity Council which oversees this program and others serving low and moderate income families in Hampden County.

"We've had to close down one of our centers because of staffing issues," Huntley said. "So we do have one center that isn't opened that houses 38 children."

In total, Valley Opportunity Council is serving 136 fewer kids than it did before the pandemic. That’s mostly because about 20% of the in-home day care providers the agency oversees have not reopened, or are taking fewer kids because of the risk of COVID-19.

Stephen Huntley is executive director of Valley Opportunity Council, which runs child care centers and in-home day cares for low- and moderate-income families in Hampden County.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
Stephen Huntley is executive director of Valley Opportunity Council, which runs child care centers and in-home day cares for low- and moderate-income families in Hampden County.

Huntley said he just bumped up pay for his child care center employees, but it's not enough in this new economy.

"Entry-level staffing can go work anywhere now and find $15, $16 an hour very easily, at jobs that are — frankly — less rigorous than being a preschool teacher," Huntley said.

Most child care centers now face a staffing crisis, according to Kim Dion, assistant vice president for Seven Hills Child Care Resources, a nonprofit that manages state subsidies for eligible central and western Massachusetts families.

"Programs are cleaning more than ever. And they’re dealing with COVID crises, with kids that are positive or families that have close contacts and positive," Dion said. "So it’s a really a struggle right now for child care providers to find appropriate staff and be able to have all their classrooms open."

Dion said even if they have reopened, many are serving fewer kids.

"So if a program used to have five classrooms full of children, maybe now they only have three or four classrooms, and that's directly tied to the staffing crisis right now," Dion said.

Child care providers who serve children from low-income families get a certain amount of money from the state for enrolled children. The rates paid in western Massachusetts are lower per child than central Massachusetts, and even lower than regions further east.

Huntley said that makes it tough to pay employees more.

"We're stuck. We're stuck in a market that's broken where we don't set the rates," Huntley said.  "We're just stuck following the state, along with the rates that they give us."

According to the state Department of Early Education and Care, the rates are based on each region’s market rate, as required by federal regulations. The department said it’s developing a plan to address the workforce shortage, but they’re not sure when they’ll release it.

State lawmakers are considering whether to invest more federal COVID-19 relief funds into child care.

"It’s very very very difficult. We’ve never seen it so hard," said Anne Nemetz-Carlson, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires, a nonprofit provider based in North Adams.

Her staffing challenge is finding people with experience — in part because of the pay.

"Some people are working as aides in our classroom. They're making $13.50, which is the [state] minimum wage. Some folks are making $15. We have a couple of teachers that are making $18 an hour," Nemetz-Carlson said. "So the people that are making $18 an hour have BA degrees and maybe five years of experience."

An outdoor play area at the Mt. Carmel Early Education and Care Center in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
An outdoor play area at the Mt. Carmel Early Education and Care Center in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Despite the low pay, teachers who are in charge of classrooms still have to meet certain state education requirements. Nonetheless, child care is sometimes thought of as just baby sitting. But it’s much more than that, said Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley, which runs Head Start and early learning programs.

"Children develop in a web of relationships, both the people that are in their family and the people who care for them right outside the family," Higgins said.

Children learn and thrive when they feel safe with those adults and trust them to be there, she said.

"Because the pay is so low, grown ups are leaving and kids [are] having attachments broken over and over again" Higgins said. "And, quite frankly, so are those adults. You know, people are so sad when they have to leave the program, but they can't afford to stay."

Rebekah Dutkiewicz was a preschool teacher for about 10 years. She loved it.

"It was just something that felt very natural, professionally and very fulfilling professionally," Dutkiewicz said.

But after about a decade, in May last year, she left. She had worked at a private preschool, Fort Hill in Northampton, where she earned a salary with benefits. But with no summers off and working 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, she struggled being available to her own three children.

"Ultimately, it became really important for me to commit to a job that allowed me to have a bit more balance in my life and more money. I mean, to be frank, just more money," Dutkiewicz said.

Last fall, she got a new job as a public school kindergarten teacher, with summers off — earning $10,000 more.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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