Child care centers struggle to find employees

Daycares throughout the U.S., not just in the Deep South, are facing multiple challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this file photo, masked teachers at Lil’ Bee’s Learning Center in Minnesota are served make-believe meals by their charges during playtime.

Like many industries where low pay is a challenge in hiring and keeping employees, staff shortages have spread to child care centers throughout the South.

Many of them attribute the scarcity to enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic but the problem appears to be more complicated.

“We have tons that apply online, but once you call them back to come in for an interview or to fill out a (paper) application, they’ll set up a time and not show up,” said Jennifer McGuire, director Tender Years Learning Center in Valdosta, Georgia, where the pay is $8-10 for a child care worker. “There’s additional students on waiting lists that if we had the staff we could take those children in.”

From March 2020 through June of this year, people on unemployment could receive a $600 boost from federal funds in addition to what they would normally receive in state benefits.

The amount dropped to $300 in many states, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.

But in June and July this year, leaders opted to discontinue the extra funding. Weekly state-level maximums for those states are $365, $275, $275 and $235 respectively.

In Crossville, Tennessee, Sabrina Gunderson, Shepherds Little Flock Preschool director, recalled an applicant blatantly wanting to work minimal hours to continue receiving unemployment.

“If I call three people, I may get one that comes in for an interview,” Gunderson said. "I actually had someone call me and say, ‘I only want to work this many hours in the next three months because if I do that, I know for the next nine months I’ll get to draw my unemployment or state benefits.”

The preschool can hold 66 children and has three open child care worker positions paying $10-$13 an hour. Board members of the Lutheran Church, which oversees the facility, often step in to help, Gunderson said.

On average, Lexie Willingham, director of Heritage Learning Center in Cullman, Alabama, said she received 15-20 online applications a week but only one to two people apply in-person as required.

“We really don’t have people putting in applications honestly. We had a lot of people applying online but they won’t come in to put in a paper application and set up an interview,” Willingham said. “I think they’re trying to show that they’re applying for jobs but aren’t actually seeking employment.”

At least two full-time vacancies and three part-time vacancies remain at the agency, she said, causing the current staff to work longer hours and office staff having to help in classrooms.

The center received a grant from the state during the pandemic, which allowed Willingham to boost pay for current employees and increase the starting pay to $9-$11 per hour based on experience. That's still below the national child care worker pay, estimated at $12.24 in May 2020 by Bureau of Labor Statistics and a clear indication that low pay is a major contributing factor to staffing shortages.

“There’s so many places that are offering such higher pay now, and you really can’t compete without increasing child care rates significantly,” Willingham said, adding that only four employees have remained since the start of the pandemic.

Funding from grants has also helped keep Smith Learning Center in Meridian, Mississippi, operational during the pandemic, especially since the center had to reduce the number of children attending due to COVID-19.

“The state of Mississippi’s child care program has really tried to help us financially through CARES Act money,” said Brenda Wilson, the center’s director. “The federal government has really tried to keep us afloat but of course if today day cares are not here, people can’t work. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to keep my doors open with less children and the same staff is because of the assistance we’ve been given federally.”

Wilson’s staff is smaller than most, approximately five employees for the daycare that is licensed to accommodate 48 children. She’s been trying to fill a vacant child care worker position — with an average pay of $10-$12 — since May. Though she typically handled administrative duties pre-pandemic, she is also working as a child care worker to fill another would-be vacancy.

“They’re applying and then if they apply and want the job, they never show up,” she said. “I think people got comfortable with what the pandemic has done to their households financially.”

Whitfield County-Dalton Day Care in Dalton, Georgia, receives federal and state funding, in addition to funding from United Way. Director Julia Clayton said funding is what has kept her facility operational.

“That’s kinda the key right now,” she said. “If you’re going to be in child care, you better have multiple sources of funding or you’re not going to make it."

Because of federal funds, and more, the center can pay its workers well above the national average, between $15-$16 an hour.

“Our salaries as a whole is a good bit more than what you would find in the private sectors and I think because of that, we’re OK right now,” Clayton said, noting the longevity of its employees. “The stability of staff is so critical to program quality. We’re glad we’re holding on to them.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that Mississippi has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country — approximately 6% as of August. Tennessee is reported at 4.6%, Georgia at 3.5% and Alabama at 3.1%.

The added $300 in federal unemployment benefits ended Sept. 6.

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