ELLSWORTH — In the May 20 edition of the Islander, there were at least 119 jobs listed in the classified section. According to the child care listing accessed via the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) website, families looking for child care in Ellsworth, for instance, will find nine openings between two providers.
The scramble for employers to find workers is caused by a myriad of factors, and the lack of available child care is proving to be one of them, according to Betsey Grant, owner of Tiny Tikes Daycare in Trenton.
Grant notes that available child care in the state has been a scarcity since before the pandemic — but the global shutdown caused by the coronavirus has created new challenges while highlighting existing issues for child–care centers and in-home day cares.
“I have so many parents that just need child care,” she said in a recent interview. “Today I turned away seven people.”
She said that many parents and guardians who are reaching out to her are returning to the office after working from home throughout the pandemic.
Her facility, which is licensed for 60 children at a time, was at capacity before the pandemic and has remained that way.
“I’ve been full for 20 years,” she said. “Day care is just a scarcity in this state for some reason.”
She said that challenges that existed since before the pandemic include working with DHHS, where employee turnover is frequent, and deciphering state rules and regulations.
Difficulties that have come up since the pandemic often have to do with employee scheduling, Grant explained. To make sure her facility can stay open, “the only option is to overschedule,” she said.
That way, if a staff member must quarantine because of an exposure to COVID-19, she has employees already lined up to work, keeping her from having to shut down the facility.
Unlike many businesses in the area, Grant has not had trouble finding and retaining her 23 staff members, but the cost to overschedule and pay for additional help does add up.
She is willing to do it because closures would adversely affect the parents who rely on her.
“That would cause stress on their job performance,” she said.
Grant noted that with so many employers looking to hire, hourly wages are exceeding the $12 per hour state minimum wage.
“Maybe people should have been paid more” before the pandemic, said Grant, who shared she always paid her high school-aged staff $1 over minimum wage.
“Without them I would not have been able to help the community slowly open up and go back to work,” she said of her younger staff.
The Moore Community Center, which has child–care facilities on State Street and Beechland Road in Ellsworth, is also hearing from parents that they need child care to go back to work.
“We have a lot of parents that are getting on the inquiry list and they can’t go back to work because they can’t find care,” said Shauna Esposito-Caldwell, director of operations for the Moore Community Center. “I’m sure that that is really hard for the community.”
She said that both centers continue to be on an enrollment freeze and could remain that way for the foreseeable future.
The child–care facilities are experiencing their own staffing shortages and have been for several months.
“We’re not really getting applications,” Esposito-Caldwell said. “If [people are] applying, they aren’t coming to their interviews.”
For the facilities to accept more children, more staff needs to be hired to maintain state-regulated staff-to-children ratios and protocols, she explained.
“If we get the staff we need, we will start to look at the inquiry list.”
Susan Tripp, who operates her in-home day care in Ellsworth, has noticed that some parents are slowly re-entering routines that were disrupted by the pandemic.
“They are looking for one or two days a week,” Tripp explained. “They’re not ready to just leap back into life” with full-time work and child care. Tripp attributed this to the pandemic being a traumatizing experience for parents and their children. But part-time clients are not enough to support the in-home day care business.
Tripp’s day care, which is licensed for 12 children, is for school-aged children. Before the pandemic, her day care was open to kids for after-school hours, school vacations and summer break.
When the pandemic hit, she closed for three months. When schools reopened with hybrid and remote learning plans, she took on existing families during the remote learning days.
“I didn’t bring in any new kids,” she explained. “I went through COVID with the people that I know.”
Additional costs for parents for the educational part of the day were reimbursed through the Ellsworth School Department and funding it received through the CARES Act, she explained.
While Tripp was able to receive to receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan when funds were still available, many in-home day cares took a financial hit amid the global shutdown. She said that some will not be able to reopen, further limiting child care openings.
Tripp said the lack of people looking for child care during the lockdown and providers being cautious of how many people they let into their homes are some of the factors that contributed to the financial hit.
Now that life is reopening, Tripp can look to bring in new families.
“I kind of have to rebuild my business,” she said.
“The bottom line is I’m grateful to still be in business,” she said, adding she is sympathetic to parents and knows getting back to normal life will take time.
“I feel for parents who have been so protective of their children. Now, they have to let go of them a little bit,” she said. “It’s like putting them on the bus that first day of school.”
To help expand the availability of child care in the state, Governor Janet Mill is proposing to invest $20 million “to help Maine communities renovate, expand or build new child care facilities and expand early childhood education programs,” according to a May 25 press release.
The funding is part of the governor’s plan to utilize $120 million in dedicated child care funds from the federal American Rescue Plan and $50 million in previous funding for pandemic assistance “to help Maine’s child care system recover and improve child care quality, accessibility and affordability over the long-term.”
Analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that “close to 5,000 Maine children with working parents, mainly in rural areas, do not live near a child care program.”
Drawing a connection between child care opportunities and a robust economy, the statement reads that, “The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has said that problems securing child care lower worker productivity and cost U.S. employers and working parents billions of dollars annually.”