'If we don't open, mom can't go to work' — the pandemic puts a priority on child care
The child care industry is pivotal for parents being able to work and for children's early learning. It struggles to compete for workers.
Traffic was roaring up and down NW 27th Avenue in Miami, but most of the children inside 1 World Learning Center snoozed away one afternoon last week.
It was nap time at the preschool.
The soft sounds of three and 4-year-olds sleeping on green cots with their blankets wrapped around them filled their classroom. There was soft music playing for the younger children in other rooms. Two infants hadn't yet settled down. One four-month-old was rubbing her eyes and crying softly.
That Monday, 23 children were at the school ranging in age from four months to four years. That was about half the number the center usually cares for, according to owner and director Antoinette Patterson.
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She’s run her daycare at this location since 2015. She started in the child care business almost 20 years ago. She’s been through economic recessions, hurricanes and now a global pandemic.
She called the early months of the pandemic "chaos" amid a mad rush for masks, gloves and cleaning supplies. That has given way to awareness, vaccines for most people (except young kids), and treatments.
"We figured it out," said Patterson.
In March 2020 child care centers were encouraged to stay open. Their staff were among those deemed essential workers in Florida. Schools, restaurants and bars were ordered closed, but not child care facilities.
"You still had police workers and nurses who had to work, the doctors have to work, the correctional officers. We still have parents that had those careers," she said.
Tens of millions of dollars were included in the first federal COVID emergency spending package for child care in Florida. Patterson's preschool secured several emergency loans and grants, including a $133,000 Emergency Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration. It also received two Paycheck Protection Program loans, each about $17,000. Both have been forgiven. The business secured a separate $6,000 grant from the Small Business Administration, too.
The preschool is in a zip code where just over half of the households make less than $50,000 a year according to Census Bureau data. That’s a few thousand dollars less than the average household income in the county. The area is about 70% Black.
The younger the child, the more expensive the care is, starting around $250 per week for babies. Most of the parents sending their children to 1 World Learning Center qualify for a subsidized fee, according to Patterson.
Attendance is less than before the pandemic, but the subsidized fee was increased early in the pandemic. That has helped Patterson raise the hourly pay rate for her teachers. Starting pay is between $12 - $13 an hour. She offered a $600 hiring bonus, but didn't get any bites.
"We can't afford to compete with Burger King or McDonald's paying maybe $13 an hour. We find ourselves in a rut. It's hard for us."
Wages and employment in the child care industry have been rising in South Florida. Median pay was up 20% last year from a year earlier. Still, it remained below $14 an hour. And while the number of people working in daycare nationwide dropped by more than 20% between May 2019 and May 2020, it grew by 5% in Florida.
"You see help wanted signs everywhere because it's extremely difficult to find people to work," said Florida Policy Institute Senior Policy Analyst Norín Dollard.
"Child care has historically not been a very high paying job. It's a very rewarding job. And we're really grateful to the people who do it. But it's not a lucrative occupation by any means. People (aren't) seeking jobs in the same way that they were before the pandemic," Dollard added.
And there are fewer people in the traditional labor pools from which the child care industry would usually hire.
While the overall job market has bounced back from the pandemic depression, there are still fewer jobs today and few people available to work in South Florida than before the pandemic.
The labor force in March was 1% smaller than the month before COVID-19 led to restrictions. That may not seem like a lot, but in South Florida, that’s more than 50,000 fewer people in the job market.
Statewide, men are back at work in the same numbers as before the pandemic, but not women.
"The child care burden, even at this juncture, tends to fall predominantly on women. So where child care is not available or affordable, women — if they left the workforce — they're not returning in quite the same numbers that men are because of their caregiving responsibilities," Dollard said.
That’s especially true for Black women in Florida. The latest data from 2021 shows the number of Black women in the job market and the number of Black women working in the state were still down 2% from pre-pandemic levels even with the broader job recovery.
"The people who have suffered the worst from the pandemic, whether it's from disease or because they work in low wage industries, are people of color, and poor people who are struggling to make sure their kids were taken care of in a healthy and safe environment to begin with."
"They're the ones who continue to struggle with this and who are having to make the choice about going to work."
Families qualify for financial help depending upon their family size and income levels. The subsidies are reimbursements to an approved child care facility based upon the level of care — usually determined by the age of the child. Its highest for infants and special needs children. And the reimbursement is only paid for days the child attends.
The reimbursement rate is around $30 a day. Meeting higher licensing standards and quality performance incentives can raise the reimbursement rates.
"Demand is high across the state," said Evelio Torres, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. There are 30 early learning coalitions across Florida with geographic responsibilities. They are non-profits set up under Florida law using state and federal dollars to provide preschool services for low-income families.
"The challenge that we're having right now is that because employers are paying higher wages, some parents are not qualifying for the subsidized program. There's an income threshold. So it's a Catch 22," Torres said. "Those parents are now making a little bit more money. It's what we call the benefits cliff."
The cliff comes if a parent gets a raise or a new job with a higher paycheck, they may no longer qualify for public assistance, like a childcare subsidy. But they’re still not making enough money to afford the care on their own. For a family of four in South Florida, that’s about $40,000 for the early learning subsidy.
There is no waiting list for a parent to receive the subsidy in Miami-Dade County, according to Torres. "We have sufficient capacity to serve children. The biggest issue that we have right now is we don't have enough families that are qualifying for the program," he said.
The Legislature has increased reimbursement rates during the pandemic. It's then up to the individual day care centers how those rates impact worker pay.
"The child care industry is not like other industry where they can just raise their prices. That's very difficult. Some families will elect, if they're charged $10 or $15 more, to leave their child at home with a relative or with a friend," said Torres.
And that underscore's another challenge Torres sees in the effort to raise the economics for the industry.
"Part of the challenge we have in this industry is that it is still referred to as child care. This is early learning. There's a lot of learning that takes place."
Child care workers and advocates call it economic development. And companies may be rethinking the role they play for the care of the children of employees.
"Businesses are starting to (ask), 'What do my employees who are working parents need (in order to) to get to work?'" said Madeleine Thakor, president of The Children's Movement Florida.
In a May 2020 survey, the Children's Movement found 75% of Florida parents relied on preschools for child care and over half of parents said their programs were closed.
Today, child care facilities in Florida can operate at their licensed capacity. Yet, in the tight job market, wages are rising and companies are looking to stand out in the competition for workers. A separate survey showed child care affected the careers of 60% of working parents.
"We found that child care support and flexibility were really key to to employee loyalty. And that is what the workforce is increasingly demanding," Thakor said.
It goes beyond today's workforce, too, she pointed out. "It's been about talent for the next generation" through developing communication, cooperation and social skills in preschool.
"Businesses who are saying, 'Hey, I don't have the right talent to hire,' are looking at their education priorities and starting earlier in in the early learning and preschool years to say, 'This is where we need to get it right."
Emilu Alvarez thinks the pandemic made a lot of people realize child care is an economic engine. She has worked at The Creative Learning Center preschool in West Kendall for more than 30 years, most of time as the director.
"If we don't open, mom can't go to work," she said. "If we're not here, the parents don't have a way to go to their job."
The preschool is on the grounds of Central Presbyterian Church. It has 25 classrooms, though three are closed because of a lack of staff. The school has a capacity of 343 students. Only 249 toddlers through pre-Kindergarteners are enrolled. The school has 43 staff members, down from 56 before the pandemic.
"I do feel that we are very fair (with) pay, but it's never going to be a worthy wage — not for child care workers," she said. Some younger teachers have taken second jobs in order to afford rent, according to Alvarez.
She has secured all her teachers to return for next year, when enrollment is expected to grow.
"We have to think that we are going to make it," she said. "And if we've made it this far, we're going to make it. And we have to be here for the families."