Sept. 5, 2020 — Gwen Richardson is a single mother who, like many others, struggled to provide her six-year-old daughter Nora with quality care while she worked fulltime throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Her primary childcare provider, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Lane County, shut down when quarantine began in March, leaving her panicking about where to send her daughter while she continued working.
“[The shutdown] was a rough time,” Richardson said. “I didn’t have a backup babysitter and so I had to rely on a neighbor to watch Nora while I worked and it was uncomfortable. Luckily, my neighbors are friendly and have their own three kids. But even just asking, ‘Can you take on another kid please?’ is just … it was a hard position to be in.”
Richardson was relieved when after two months of sending Nora to her neighbor’s house, the Boys and Girls Club announced it would be reopening as an emergency childcare facility for essential workers.
“Just knowing that my kid is in such a good place with trusting adults, it just gives me such a sense of security,” Richardson said.
But not every parent was fortunate enough to land a spot on the limited enrollment list at the club, which due to new social distancing regulations, only has space for 60 kids.
Even before the pandemic, childcare was in a state of crisis both locally and nationally.
In 2019, there was one slot open for every three children who needed care in Oregon. Now, up to 48 percent of childcare could disappear long-term without adequate federal funding, according to the Center for American Progress. That would increase the gap to one slot available for every six children who need care.
“We need a system that actually provides care and supports for all families, but we don’t have one,” said Andrae Paluso, the executive director of the advocacy organization Family Forward Action. “What we have instead is a crisis in childcare. We have a shortage of providers and facilities. Even before the COVID crisis, every county in Oregon was considered a childcare desert.”
Fewer educators are entering the childcare sector because they aren’t paid enough. In Oregon, the average annual income of early childhood educators is $26,740, according to 2018 data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. That’s $36,686 less than the average Oregon median household income.
Childcare also functions within the private sector, which means it operates as a business. However, not many providers want to start their own center because it’s simply not a profitable undertaking.
“These are folks operating on razor thin margins and often at a loss,” Paluso said. “It’s just not a moneymaking venture and I don’t think it’s why most people go into childcare.”
Providers have to charge parents steep prices just to stay afloat, but this leaves many parents drowning in the cost.
The average annual cost of infant care in the Florence Area is $8,892, or $741 monthly, while preschool care costs $7,224 annually, or $602 monthly. That’s nearly 40 percent of a fulltime minimum wage worker’s salary in Lane County.
For families with multiple children, those numbers double or triple, ruling out private childcare for many medium- and particularly low-income parents.
“If we want our kids to have high-quality care, we can’t expect for that to happen exclusively in the private market,” Paluso said. “We have a whole public education system but around childcare, we have an almost entirely private tuition system.”
Because a majority of childcare funding comes from parent tuition, providers who have had to close or who are operating at a decreased capacity due to COVID restrictions face enormous financial hardship and may be forced to close permanently.
The number of operating centers in Oregon have already been reduced from 3,838 to 2,278, and the number of open slots has been reduced by more than half – from 106,000 to 49,917.
As of Sept. 1 in Lane County, only 2.34 percent of infant care slots are open and 3.76 percent slots for school-aged care.
The biggest barrier to opening back up is health and safety concerns, according to 49 percent of childcare providers surveyed by Oregon Department of Education in May.
The second largest barrier is affording reduced enrollment.
“It’s becoming a greater and greater crisis,” Paluso said. “And I think with COVID, it’s also becoming clear that it is an essential service, and it is something that is required to have a vibrant economy.”
In addition to the financial blow from lower enrollment rates, there are added expenses involved in properly carrying out the regulations from the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Education. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Lane County spent $20,000 alone on personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies in order to comply with state health regulations.
Executive Director Chuck Trent said the added costs have been devastating.
One way to mitigate the issue is to increase tuition, but Trent knows that most of the families who rely of the club could not afford a tuition increase.
“Typically, our [parents] are single parents that are working at least two jobs or grandparents that are raising kids and are on a fixed income,” Trent said. “They just don’t have a way that they can absorb the cost of childcare in our community.”
Trent sought out funding from the state, which was allocated $38.5 million under the CARES Act for childcare, but said the local club hasn’t received any assistance since the pandemic began.
“Not a penny has gone to Boys and Girls Club, despite all the stuff that’s going on,” Trent added.
The club is running on fumes financially, according to Trent, and without some assistance soon, he fears they will have to shut down again.
“We’re going to continue as long as we can and when the funds run out, the funds run out,” he said. “We’ve written letters to the governor, to all the state legislators, and quite frankly, they’ve just been silent on this issue. So, we’re up a creek without a paddle.”
Trent said he feels like he has had to jump through endless hoops to keep the club running and continue to provide a service that so many parents rely on in the community.
“This is the most inept, unorganized, difficult situation that I could possibly imagine,” he said. “You would think in this kind of crisis, that we would have all the state and federal agencies doing everything they can to get workers back on the job, and to make sure that their kids are safe.”
Family Forward Action believes that in order to make real, wide-sweeping improvements, the laws and policies around caregiving must change.
“We’ve been organizing mothers and caregivers to really fight for changes that support us better at the state level and sometimes at the federal level,” Paluso said.
Most recently, Family Forward Action partnered with the Time to Care Oregon coalition to help pass the country’s most inclusive paid family and medical leave law in the nation, which will be effective in early 2023.
For more information about the new paid leave program, go to www.familyforwardaction.org/paid-leave-fa/.
The ultimate goal of Family Forward Action is to push to pass a bill that guarantees universal publicly funded childcare.
“We have a universal publicly funded education system that sometimes operates, unfortunately, like a childcare system,” Paluso said. “But we have no equivalent public system for kids zero to five. Obviously once they enter school age, there are school programs available to kids, but we still lack a lot of the aftercare and summer care support families.”
While universal childcare may be a good long-term goal, many parents need solutions immediately. That’s why local child advocate Suzan Mann-Heintz has been working with a few local churches in town to see if they are willing to provide spaces for pop-up childcare centers. Two churches have agreed to help so far if she can rally together enough support and interest.
“My dream would be for us to have several places around town where we would have a certified person plus one or two volunteers that would oversee about 10 kids during the workday so that families can keep businesses open,” Mann-Heintz said.
Mann-Heintz plans to host a few Zoom seminars that will be open to anyone interested in learning more about the process of applying to be an emergency childcare provider.
For those interested in getting involved, Mann-Heintz can be reached at [email protected] or at 541- 590-0770.