As in many industries where low wages are a challenge in hiring and retaining employees, staff shortages have spilled over to child care centers in the South.
Many of them attribute the scarcity to the increase in unemployment benefits during the pandemic, but the problem appears to be more complicated.
“We have tons of applications online, but once you call them back for an interview or to complete a (paper) application, they’ll set a time and won’t show up,” said Jennifer McGuire, director of Tender Years. . Learning Center in Valdosta, Georgia, where the salary for an educator is $ 8-10. “There are additional students on the waiting lists that if we had the staff we could accommodate these children. “
From March 2020 to June of this year, unemployed people could receive a boost of $ 600 from federal funds on top of what they would normally receive from state benefits.
The amount has fallen to $ 300 in many states, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
But in June and July of this year, leaders chose to end the additional funding. The state-level weekly maximums for these states are $ 365, $ 275, $ 275, and $ 235, respectively.
In Crossville, Tennessee, Sabrina Gunderson, principal of Shepherds Little Flock Kindergarten, recalled a candidate who clearly wanted to work a minimum number of hours to continue to receive unemployment benefits.
“If I call three people, maybe I get one for an interview,” Gunderson said. “In fact, someone called me and said, ‘I only want to work that many hours in the next three months because if I do, I know that for the next nine months I will collect my unemployment or state benefits. “
The nursery school can accommodate 66 children and has three open childcare stations paying between $ 10 and $ 13 per hour. Members of the board of directors of the Lutheran Church, which oversees the establishment, often step in to help, Gunderson said.
On average, Lexie Willingham, director of the Heritage Learning Center in Cullman, Ala., Said she receives 15-20 online applications per week, but only one to two people apply in person as needed.
“We really don’t have people submitting candidacies. We had a lot of people applying online, but they weren’t coming to apply on paper and set up an interview, ”said Willingham. “I think they’re trying to show that they’re applying for jobs but aren’t actually looking for a job.”
At least two full-time vacancies and three part-time vacancies remain at the agency, she said, forcing current staff to work longer and office staff having to help in classrooms.
The center received a state grant during the pandemic, which allowed Willingham to increase the salary of current employees and increase the starting salary to $ 9 to $ 11 an hour depending on the experience. That’s still lower than the national babysitter salary, estimated at $ 12.24 as of May 2020 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a clear indication that low wages are a major contributing factor to staff shortages.
“There are so many places that are offering such high salaries now, and you really can’t compete without dramatically increasing childcare rates,” Willingham said, adding that there were only four employees left since the start of the pandemic.
Grant funding also helped keep the Smith Learning Center in Meridian, Mississippi, operational during the pandemic, especially as the center had to reduce the number of children attending due to COVID-19.
“The Mississippi state child care program really tried to help us financially with the CARES law money,” said Brenda Wilson, director of the center. “The federal government has really tried to keep us afloat, but of course if today’s child care isn’t there people can’t work. The only reason I was able to keep my doors open with fewer children and the same staff was because of the help we received from the federal government.
Wilson’s staff are smaller than most, around five employees for the daycare licensed to accommodate 48 children. She has been trying to fill a vacant daycare worker position – with an average salary of $ 10 to $ 12 – since May. Although she usually took care of administrative duties before the pandemic, she is also working as a daycare worker to fill another vacant position.
“They apply and if they apply and want the job, they never show up,” she said. “I think people have become familiar with what the pandemic has done financially to their households. “
Whitfield County-Dalton Daycare in Dalton, Georgia receives federal and state funding in addition to funding from the United Way. Principal Julia Clayton said the funding was what kept her facility up and running.
“That’s kind of the key right now,” she said. “If you’re going to be in daycare, you better have multiple sources of funding or you won’t.”
With federal funds and more, the center can pay its employees well above the national average, between $ 15 and $ 16 an hour.
“Our overall salaries are a bit higher than what you would find in the private sector and I think because of that we are doing well right now,” Clayton said, noting the longevity of his employees. “Staff stability is so essential to the quality of the program. We are happy to hang on to it.
The US Department of Labor reports that Mississippi has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country – around 6% in August. Tennessee is reported at 4.6%, Georgia at 3.5% and Alabama at 3.1%.
The additional $ 300 in federal unemployment benefits ended on September 6.