Centers Struggle to Pay Staff, And Families Can’t Cover Additional Costs of Higher Wages

West Warwick child care program administrator Robert Halley has been working in the industry since 2009. He has served in roles ranging from lead teacher to director, and has seen the struggles early childhood educators and working families face as a result of the child care workforce crisis. On a daily basis at the Academy for Little Children, Robert sees the tremendous challenges families face in securing high quality child care.

Robert at work at the Academy for Little Children

“Child care is a serious burden on families, especially if they have more than one child. There are often waitlists, and families struggle to find a spot even if they can afford care. Sometimes families end up having to drive extremely far each day to a center with an opening, or parents have to quit their job if they couldn’t find an opening,” said Robert. “ There are cascading financial consequences if families can’t find affordable, reliable, quality care.”

Unfortunately, waitlists are growing as the child care workforce crisis deepens in Rhode Island and programs are unable to offer competitive wages to attract and retain qualified teachers. At Robert’s program, the staff turnover rate has skyrocketed from 5% to over 38%, and their overall teaching staff has been reduced from 19 to 13. Due to this shortage, they’ve had to pause new enrollments. 

“It was difficult to find qualified staff before the pandemic because it’s a low-paying field, but now it’s impossible,” said Robert. “We can’t even get basic, entry-level applicants to show up for interviews. We just can’t compete with large retail corporations like Target who are able to pay more for jobs that come with less stress and more flexible schedules.”

Robert cites a number of factors as deterrents for job-seekers, and reasons for educators frequently leaving the field. He says the majority of child care programs aren’t able to offer competitive pay above minimum wage because the costs associated with running the business take up their budget. They are also unable to raise tuition prices because most parents simply cannot afford to pay any more than they already are. Program budgets don’t leave enough funds to pay staff a healthy and competitive wage being in an early, and teaching in an early childhood classroom is fast-paced and stressful with little downtime. Low wages make it even more difficult to attract and retain certified, experienced teachers. He said staff struggle to pay for basic living expenses, school loans, monthly bills, and housing; it is possible for early childhood educators to work fulltime and still qualify for Medicaid. Many have expressed that they can only afford to stay in the field with a second job, or if they have a spouse in a higher-paying field. 

The pandemic has only increased the stresses of the job. Early childhood educators work with children who are not vaccinated and cannot reliably wear masks.  Teachers fear they’ll be exposed to COVID-19 and bring it home to their families. Educators also have added cleaning protocols on top of an already packed day, and new pod and isolation protocols make educators feel even more alone on the job. As more staff leave, there isn’t coverage if someone is out sick, asks to book time off, or has to quarantine.

“If the child care industry is in crisis, it impacts everyone. If child care providers don’t have spots for families who need care, it affects all industries,” said Robert. “Parents working in every field need care—nurses, engineers, sanitation workers, nursing home staff, food supply chain workers. If they can’t access affordable, high quality child care, parents will have to take time away from the workforce and the entire economy is impacted. We must devote resources to support the child care workforce so this doesn’t happen.”