Underlying all the labor shortages? A ‘crisis’ in the child care sector creating a vicious cycle for working parents

Written by on October 6, 2021

Underlying all the labor shortages? A ‘crisis’ in the child care sector creating a vicious cycle for working parents

By Laura Benshoff / WHYY

October 6, 2021

Ghealze Bernstein works with preschool students at Children’s Playhouse Whitman in South Philadelphia. Photo | Emma Lee / WHYY

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Shannon Wink, a digital strategy and communications professional in Fishtown, has been trying unsuccessfully to get her 15-month-old daughter into day care since last winter. Each time, the answer is: Sorry, we’re full. Try again later.

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“You can’t just snap your fingers and find child care. It’s a real process,” she said.

Providers and their advocates say their hands are tied. Wages in the industry coupled with ongoing COVID-19 concerns make it difficult to attract enough early childhood teachers to meet demand.

“I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, we’ve always talked about the challenges of hiring … but we’ve never seen this before,” said Diane P. Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

A shortage of child care workers across Pennsylvania is among the factors contributing to wider-rippling labor shortages across the economy. With thousands of fewer spots for kids, many parents trying to rejoin the workforce or being pulled back to offices are stymied by the realities of the child care sector. Government assistance for providers has so far not restored the industry to pre-pandemic levels, and, nationally, the industry shed 10,000 jobs between June and August 2021, according to federal data.

A recent survey of 1,163 day cares in Pennsylvania helped quantify the distress. Statewide, 92% of child care respondents were short-staffed, according to Start Strong PA, a group that lobbies for child care funding. Across the commonwealth, more than 25,000 children sit on their waitlists.

“Hiring is our top priority right now,” said Jen Segelken, vice president of youth development at the Greater Philadelphia YMCA.

Pre-pandemic, the Greater Philadelphia Y had approximately 950 kids enrolled at its early childhood centers. Now, it has 610. To be fully staffed and clear the waitlists would take 40-50 hires, said Segelken.

“It’s been like pulling needles out of a haystack,” said Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez, executive director of Children’s Playhouse, which runs two early learning centers in South Philadelphia.

She started recruiting in June for the fall school year. Still, she is down five classroom staff: three infant-toddler teachers, one lead teacher, and one assistance teacher. Their waitlist is about 20 kids long, and several classrooms are closed due to lack of staff. Next month, Alvarado-Rodriguez is requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Some already already got vaccinated to be able to work with the School District of Philadelphia, but she fears the mandate will cause a further staff exodus.

The health risks through the pandemic in the sector, though, have been real. Child care workers who stayed on the job put themselves, and their families, at risk.

The former director at Children’s Playhouse, for instance, caught COVID-19 at work and spread it to her father, who lived with her. He then died due to the virus.

“That became a very traumatic experience … She couldn’t bounce back” and eventually moved on, said Alvarado-Rodriguez, who took on the director’s duties.

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