Marianne Barter struggled with the decision to keep Merrimack Valley daycare closed for a snow day several weeks ago.
After all, many of her parents work in the medical field and in nursing homes and still need to watch their children, even in bad weather. In fact, the organization hasn’t closed for a snow day in 50 years.
But this year, amid an employee shortage plaguing child care centers across the state, issues like slippery roads can leave a facility without enough staff to operate safely.
“I have so few staff who live close by because it’s so expensive to live in Concord now, the commute is longer, which affects their ability to reach us on a snowy day, which affects the number kids I can take care of, and now all of a sudden we’re in this situation where we’re closing for the first time in 50 years,” Barter said. “It’s amazing, and very hard on these families who have to go to work.”
Enrollment is declining at New Hampshire daycare centers even as waiting lists for desperate parents continue to grow, a paradox caused by severe staffing shortages in the child care industry, according to providers like Barter who testified at the State House in support of bills to tackle the state’s child care crisis last month.
The problem affects families and daycares nationwide and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with low-income households and people of color being the worst off.
This had a ripple effect on the workforce, as parents without childcare had to quit their jobs, causing shortages in other industrial sectors. According to experts, the main challenge seems to be recruiting staff in the childcare sector, which generally offers low wages and requires more qualifications than retail or catering jobs that pay the same salary. or more.
“I’m going to have a staff member come up to me and say, ‘I like my job, but at Target I can make an extra two bucks an hour,'” Barter said.
“It’s real money. And the economics of child care is I can’t match it. I don’t have the coffers at Target and I don’t have the ability to stretch my budget as big as companies can get.
Barter said that with 70% of her organization’s budget already earmarked for payroll, she cannot continue to raise tuition to cover costs because it would exceed what families can afford.
Shannon Curran is one of the dedicated workers who has stayed in the industry, even as others leave for higher paying jobs. Curran, who has been in the field for 15 years, says she enjoys working with children at Merrimack Valley Daycare, teaching in classrooms, meeting one-on-one as a special education coordinator and leading the organization’s after-school program on Jennings Drive.
“A big part of that is that we teach the next generation. It’s funny. They teach you everyday and you teach them,” Curran said. “I work for a great agency, that’s another reason why I stay in a crèche.
“I think having an incentive is important. Something to work on. When you feel appreciated, it goes further.
Yet for those who remain like Curran, the job becomes more difficult as they are understaffed.
“Typically I go to work, I’ll be in one class covering that until that teacher comes in, and then from there I go to the next class,” Curran said. “Because we’re short-staffed, I’ve been in the classroom more than I’m able to do our special needs part, where I’ve been able to go and work with the kids one-on-one. I can’t do it as much as necessary.
A bipartisan bill, SB 446which has been proposed in the New Hampshire State Senate, seeks to create a Child Care Workforce Fund to administer child care subsidies to fund the recruitment of workers and provide financial incentives such as bonuses and benefits to encourage worker retention.
At a Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Jan. 27, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Rebecca Whitley, a Democrat from Concord, described child care staff as “the workforce ‘work behind the Granite State workforce’ and said New Hampshire had 1,500 unfilled child care positions as of December. 2021.
“Child care programs provide a supportive environment for healthy child development and prepare children for school and life, but also enable parents to re-enter and remain in the workforce,” said Whitley. “The pandemic has illustrated how essential childcare is to our economy when suddenly no one had it. … But sadly, the pandemic has also exposed the fragility of New Hampshire’s child care system and the need to solidify that workforce.
Under the bill, child care centers would offer new employees a hiring bonus of $250, a retention bonus of $100 per quarter for employees who work for one year, $200 per quarter for employees who work for one to four years, $300 per quarter for employees who work five years or more. Employees enrolled in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Granite Steps for Quality program may receive additional benefits. The bill is co-sponsored by nine Senate Democrats and two Republicans and is currently at the Health and Human Services Committee.
At Merrimack Valley Day Care, the average employee has been there for 16 years. Barter believes one reason for the lack of new hires is the lack of early childhood education offerings at New Hampshire’s vocational and technology schools that can funnel students into the field. According to the state Department of Education list 2021 of the CTE offerings, no school in New Hampshire offers an early childhood education program. In the absence of a school-to-career pipeline, Barter says the bounties could go a long way in attracting new people to the field.
“I think the starting bonuses, whatever draws people into our field at this point is really extremely important,” Barter said.
Two other bills also aimed to tackle the crisis this year, one seeks to establish a fund to fund new childcare ventures or tuition fees for children at a pre-existing facility, and is currently in committee. Another, asking that a committee study the matter, was reported inappropriate to legislate in committee.
Even state legislators themselves are not immune to the problem of child care shortages. A bill, HB 1370currently on the House Legislative Administration Committee, is seeking to establish a committee to study child care options for New Hampshire state legislators.
Its sponsor, Rep. Matthew Wilhelm, a Democrat from Manchester, told a committee hearing on January 19 that providing childcare would help ease service in the legislature for Granite Staters in their 20s. , thirties and forties who are parents of young children. The average age of New Hampshire state officials in 2021-22 was 61, according to data Wilhelm shared with the clerk’s office.
“I think it would be smart planning and good public policy for us to do something to remove this unique barrier to public service in hopes of increasing representation for Granite State parents, most of whom are in the 20s, 30s and 40s, whose lived experience is currently underrepresented in New Hampshire representatives,” Wilhelm said.
Barter testified in support of the child care workforce funding bill and hopes it will provide what she calls a “lifeline” to other child care providers like her.
“I think when the going gets tough, this bill will be a game-changer for us,” Barter said.
“This is an opportunity for us to retain the people who are on the ground and help them until we can hopefully come up with a plan where the economics of child care improve a lot. .”