[Update: A ballot measure to help fund actions to meet the child care shortage challenges in Whatcom County passed — by 20 votes — in the general election per the final county on Nov. 28.]
First in a two-part series.
Each weekday morning, Alaina Hirsch leaves her Ferndale apartment and drops off her 8-month-old son, Tommy, at a day care facility.
The single mother works for a Bellingham property management company, but her commute first takes her in the opposite direction — to Blaine, site of the only Whatcom County child care business that had a spot for her son.
Hirsch then drives to her job in Bellingham, again returning to Blaine to pick up her son before heading home.
“It’s a little under two hours of driving every day,” she said. “It’s not a terrible, terrible commute, but it does add up every day.”
Hirsch started looking for child care when she was three months pregnant. She called or emailed virtually every local provider she could find contact information for, and in the majority of cases, her inquiries weren’t even returned.
Those that were, Hirsch said, resulted in being added to indefinitely long waitlists. After four long months of searching — and with two months to spare before giving birth — she was offered a spot in Blaine at a cost of $80 a day.
“I had no options,” she said.
Hirsch’s predicament is emblematic of a longstanding shortfall of child care availability in Northwest Washington. After two years of pandemic-related setbacks, this shortfall hasn’t gotten any better.
In Whatcom and Skagit counties, there are only enough openings for one-third of children, according to Child Care Aware of Washington (CCAW). In San Juan County things are slightly better, with openings available for 41% of children.
About 6,250 child care openings exist across the three counties, according to December 2021 data compiled by CCAW. While several thousand openings may sound sufficient, the unmet need is huge when the area’s nearly 19,000 children younger than five are factored in.
It’s likely there are now even fewer openings, as the number of child care businesses dropped in every county in the eight months between December 2021 and August 2022, according to CCAW.
With demand at such a high level, it might then be reasonable to ask: why aren’t more child care businesses forming?
The answer is multifaceted, and solutions to fixing the overall shortfall are even more so.
David Webster, director of the Opportunity Council’s Early Learning and Family Services department, compares the process of starting a child care business to solving a Rubik’s Cube.
The industry is a complex system of interlocking markets, rules, programs, grants and subsidies, with start-up costs a potential barrier to entry.
Kenda Sipma, Child Care Recruitment and Expansion manager for the Bellingham-based Center for Child Care Retention and Expansion Northwest (C-CREC NW), said the costs depend on what kind of care is being provided.
A family child care center — where about five to 15 children receive care in a home setting with one or more providers — costs about $10,000 to get up and running, she said. Sipma, who worked as a provider in such a setting for nearly 12 years, said that amount pays for things like CPR and food-handling training, supplies for children’s education and entertainment, and repairs and adjustments to the home.
A child care center, where up to several hundred children are grouped by age, can cost between $75,000 and $100,000 initially, Sipma said. This includes the cost of the facility, any necessary repairs, insurance, supplies and a full staff of care providers and administrative offices.
The licensing process can also create hurdles. Although important for keeping children safe by ensuring businesses meet health and safety standards, have qualified staff, and provide a balanced ratio of children and caretakers, licensing can cause long delays before a business opens.
It can take time and money to meet the often-minute details required, such as having the correct amount of space between cribs, or maintaining 75-square-feet of outdoor space per child, Webster said.
Once a business applies for a license, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) has 90 days to either issue it or deny the application. Judy Bunkelman, a child care licensing administrator at DCYF, said the department tries to finish the process in about four weeks, but the time frame depends on how ready the provider is upon applying.
Current supply chain delays for repair or renovation work can add substantial time on the path to opening, and providers must also find a way to sustain themselves during this process, Webster added.
DCYF recently increased efforts to support providers applying for licenses, helping them be more prepared, Bunkelman said. There is also support available locally from the Northwest Center for Child Care Retention and Expansion.
Keeping the door open
Once a child care facility is in business, financial concerns can easily become an overriding focus.
“When you’re a licensed family home, you’re not only the educator and provider of care to the children, you’re also the business manager and the accounts payable clerk and all those roles,” Webster said. “Sometimes people go into child care with a big heart but not necessarily with a business degree.”
Regardless of a facility’s size, questions like what rate to charge per child and whether to accept subsidy payments are critical. If a provider charges too much, families won’t be able to pay it. If they charge too little, they won’t be able to pay their costs.
“Regardless of where their heart was or what their customers needed from them, [providers] always have to make the choice of [what they’re] … going to focus on because it gives [them] the best shot at consistent customers and hopefully a profit margin at the end of the day,” Webster said.
Jamie Desmul, director of early learning for the Bellingham YMCA, oversees the downtown branch, one of two facilities the nonprofit operates locally. Many people, she said, find it hard to believe that child care businesses aren’t swimming in cash given what they charge, especially for infant and toddler care.
The average cost of full-time child care in this area, Desmul said, costs more than in-state tuition at Western Washington University. The economic reality of most businesses isn’t as rosy, however.
“You are lucky if you break even,” she said. “Even in a for-profit center. It’s not a super-lucrative business endeavor. People do it because they love it or because it’s their mission.”
Subsidies, which help lower-income families afford such expensive child care, can also serve as further complication for a facility’s financials.
What the state pays providers through a subsidy like Working Connections Child Care is notably lower than what a parent in the private market would pay, said Nicole Rose, DCYF Assistant Secretary Early Learning.
Accepting children whose parents pay with subsidies, Bunkelman said, “is very much a business decision made by individual providers for their business.”
These decisions can be the difference between being able to pay staff or not and — like many industries right now — child care businesses statewide are struggling to find staff, she said.
Even if they can find staff, there’s also the matter of paying them fairly.
An unintended consequence of higher quality standards is that educational requirements for providers have gone up while pay has stayed low. Webster said providers for an Opportunity Council program used to be hired with an associate’s degree or less, but most staff must now have a bachelor’s degree and are paid $25,000 less than local kindergarten teachers.
“I always say that the only reason Americans have had child care for a century is because we impoverished the workers who were providing it,” he said.
This is especially problematic in a place like San Juan County, where a child care worker’s salary doesn’t match the higher cost of island living, Webster added. Recently, the Opportunity Council purchased a housing development in the San Juans so that child care, service and tourism industry workers there could continue to afford living there.
Despite doing a job that is as equally important as those done by schoolteachers, Desmul said the lack of outside support helps lead to more frequent turnover and staffing shortages in their industry.
“This is a hard job,” she said. “We’re taking care of little children in a group setting, and the staff aren’t getting recognized the same way that elementary school teachers are. There’s not the support system from the state that the school districts have. I think that a lot of people feel like glorified babysitters, and really they’re so much more than that.”
No child care? No, thank you
The YMCA’s early learning waitlist is between 300 and 400 people long, Desmul said. While about 30% of those parents will find other care options for their children, many will be between a rock and a hard place.
That’s especially true for parents moving here without a full understanding of what the child care situation is like, she added.
“You can sense this desperation,” Desmul said. “I have some parents who will email me once a month to check in. It’s really disheartening for me to have to tell them [there still aren’t any spots open]. Somebody has to leave for another spot to open.”
At the Y, children who enter the early learning program are often there from infancy to the time they go to kindergarten, she explained. Should an opening occur, enrolling a 1-year-old means Desmul must plan ahead to ensure they’ll have enough space for that child — and the others already enrolled — for two years.
Some people considering jobs in the area have found no available child care and actually turned down offers, said Webster, resulting in local employers struggling more to fill vacancies.
The non-lucrative nature of child care work doesn’t help many facilities fill their vacancies, either. A recent Bellingham-based Reddit page noted a job listing for day care at a local fitness center. The part-time position paid one cent above minimum wage.
Although further state minimum wage increases will likely help those who provide child care, it also means those costs will continue being passed along to the families who pay for it.
“The system of child care is kind of broken,” she said. “The typical capitalism of supply and demand doesn’t work as well for this field, because so much of it is how much we spend on staff. As staffing costs go up — whereas we want to try and professionalize the field, and add more benefits and higher wages — that comes directly off the backs of working families. There’s no other way to break even than to raise rates.”
Next week: Part 2 — A county ballot initiative provides hope for bolstering local child care.
— Reported by Matt Benoit and Sadie Fick
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