On December 22, 2022

Childcare centers statewide seek more workers

By John Flowers/Addison County Independent

Add childcare centers to the list of industries struggling to find and retain employees amid what has become a shallow pool of workers since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Childcare facilities statewide, many of which operate on a thin margin, simply don’t have the resources to do what other industries have been doing: Substantially upping wages and benefits packages in order to fill jobs.

“Since Covid, hiring has been most difficult,” said Linda January, executive director of the Middlebury’s Otter Creek Child Center (OCCC). “We have gone the longest with a shorter sub list than we ever have since I’ve been here.”

And as many of us know, employee shortages at childcare centers can lead to employment challenges on the home front, such as when a parent has to take unpaid time off from a job to watch their youngsters.

OCCC this month has been trying to fill three full-time educator positions to work with its preschoolers, infants and toddlers. The organization has also put out the call for part-time substitutes to fill in for educators absent due to illness, maternity leave, or a variety of other reasons.

Being short-staffed with few subs has led to OCCC reducing its hours by 15 minutes during the month of December, a situation that’s likely to spill into next month, according to January.

“The way that we’re staffed, in order to meet ratios, it’s hard to spread people out when you don’t have as many,” she explained.

And there’s next to no flexibility when multiple teachers call out sick, such as on Dec. 1, when four staffers stayed home due to a stomach bug. OCCC had to close that day.

January has been busy recruiting employees, but — like other employers these days — is finding it tough.

“Very flexible work, great for a college student looking for part-time work or a recent retiree,” reads the OCCC’s recent posting on social media.

The ad promises a “new, increased salary scale” made possible by a $1.50-per-hour bump recently OK’d by the OCCC board, according to January. It translates into wages starting at $14-$15 per hour for subs with relevant childcare experience who can pass a background check for criminal record and abuse/neglect screening (including fingerprinting). Those teachers with five years of experience and a bachelor’s degree start at $20.13 per hour.

While OCCC’s wages can’t compete with some businesses in the private sector, it does offer perks, including reduced tuition for the children of its employees; earned paid time off; life, dental and vision insurance; an IRA with automatic employer contribution; tuition reimbursement after one year of employment, up to 15 days of paid holidays (and snow days); paid professional development; and yearly wage increases.

Health insurance isn’t on the list because workers can find cheaper options independent of OCCC — such as through Vermont Health Connect, January noted. She added that if OCCC were to offer a company health insurance plan, it would place some if its employers at risk of losing their children’s Dr. Dynasaur benefits (low-cost or free, depending on income health coverage for children, teenagers younger than 19 and pregnant women.)

“Even if we paid 80% of an employee-only plan, most people would probably still be paying more with our plan than they would through the (Vermont health) exchange,” January said.

OCCC has attracted applicants for vacancies, but few result in hires. Otter Creek has posted its jobs through the state of Vermont, social media and other outlets. It’s been tough sledding so far.

“What I’m hearing from other centers — and what we’re experiencing — is we’ll get people who apply and who sometimes don’t respond to us after we reach out to them,” January said. “Sometimes we’ll have people set up interviews and then not show up. During the past two to three years of COVID, that’s happened way more times than I can even count.”

OCCC officials have an extra reason to yearn for a deeper labor pool. Planning and financing is well under way for a Community Child Care Expansion Project at OCCC’s 150 Weybridge St. campus. If successful, it would bring up to 77 new childcare slots and 28 new jobs to the Middlebury area by the spring of 2025.

Dylan Bell is operations manager for the Mary Johnson Children’s Center (MJCC). The center, which serves a total of 70 children at 81 Water St. in Middlebury and at two smaller programs in East Middlebury and Orwell, could use an additional two or three educators to bring staffing up to a desired level of 25, according to Bell.

MJCC runs its East Middlebury program in a building with two classrooms. The center is only able to offer programming in one of those classrooms right now because of inadequate staffing, according to Bell.

While there’s a shortage of educators, there’s no lack of children to fill the limited slots at MJCC; there’s a waiting list.  Demand is also high for MJCC’s afterschool program at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan School. The center’s summer program at Mary Hogan had to operate at limited capacity for a while due to a staffing shortage.

Bell echoed January’s lament that childcare centers are finding it tough to compete for the limited number of workers. MJCC enacted a 2% raise at the beginning of this academic year, he said.

“Ever since I’ve been here, which has been a year and a half, we’ve been looking for full-time staff,” Bell said, “It’s a growing theme in this sector. Our biggest challenge, as a nonprofit, is paying teachers what they deserve to be paid. The way we’re trying to combat it is (applying for) more state funding, more grants and any source of funding that could bump up wages, while starting to offer more benefits to attract more people.”

Amie Whitcomb, executive director of the Bristol Family Center (BFC), has lent her voice to the chorus of childcare stakeholders lobbying for better wages in the industry. She gratefully acknowledged last year’s passage of bill H.171, which among other things invests $5.5 million in the state’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program and helps providers and educators by allotting $2.5 million toward scholarships and loan repayment.

“It’s been very beneficial to families, but it doesn’t really change the income that’s coming in here,” Whitcomb explained.

Higher tuition fees

The BFC — which is based at 45 Orchard Terrace in Bristol and serves 48 children — has had to raise its tuition fees to cover expenses, including modest wage hikes in hopes of attracting and retaining educators.

“We have tried to continue to increase our wages, but they’re still not where they should be,” Whitcomb said. “There are teachers who will notice that you can go work at McDonald’s for $17 an hour, and some of our teachers aren’t making that.”

Wages at Bristol Family Center range from $15 to $19 per hour, depending on education and experience.

It’s frustrating to not be able to offer a higher wage in an industry that’s so important to so many people, according to advocates.

“We try to professionalize our career path, and no one here is making professional wages,” Whitcomb said. “It’s really challenging. We ask people who work here to do professional-level work. They’re writing clinical documents for parents; we’re really paying attention to children’s development. We’re sending kids off to schools and we’re providing safe and high-quality care so people can work. And they’re getting paid less than someone who works at the local gas station.”

Like other centers, BFC has struggled to find subs to fill in for teachers temporarily grounded by Covid and other illnesses. Whitcomb said the center has had to occasionally close some of its classes, usually for just a day, when multiple educators called in sick.

“We did have one time where we closed a classroom for a week because everyone got hit with Covid, kids and teachers alike,” she said. “It was a pretty easy decision.”

The center, during the past year, lost two of its longtime teachers to other career paths, where they could earn more money and get better benefits, according to Whitcomb. One of the departing educators needed to plan for college tuition for her own teen.

“They loved this work and didn’t want to leave,” Whitcomb said.

While times are tough right now in the childcare field, Whitcomb remains hopeful. She and other area early childhood advocates were scheduled to meet with legislators on Wednesday, Dec. 14, to convey their wage and hiring concerns. She hopes H.171 is a sign of brighter days ahead.

“I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been in making a difference,” she said.

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