By Cristina Janney
A recent survey conducted in Ellis County on child care found that 151 people – 97% of those seeking childcare – would return to the workforce if they had affordable childcare.
Ninety percent of the respondents to this part of the survey were women and 45 percent of those respondents had a bachelor’s degree.
In a county with a 1.4% unemployment rate in December, that’s significant, said Sarah Wasinger, executive director of Hays Chamber.
“There are a lot of mothers who stay home and take care of their children instead of working,” Wasinger said. “We also know that they would earn between $40,000 and $50,000 extra every year if they could work.”
The survey included approximately 800 respondents who chose to participate in the survey. Wasinger said the survey likely didn’t reflect all of the community’s needs, only the data the survey could capture.
The three main barriers to seeking care were cost, reliability of care, and quality of care, with the last two closely related to cost.
On average in Kansas, about 7 percent of a family’s income is spent on child care, but Ellis County exceeds that figure by 11 to 12 percent, Wasinger said.
Child custody gap
Although these three factors have been paramount in the minds of parents, many parents in Ellis County and Northwestern Kansas are caught up in the lack of childcare.
Ellis County has eight child care centers and 79 family child care centers. Child care impacts the county by about $11.4 million, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas.
Care of infants and toddlers is particularly important. According to a 2020 Child Care Demand Study, Ellis County had one child care opening for every 10 children in need of care under the age of 3.
However, Jewell, Decatur and Gove counties did not have spaces for infants or toddlers. Thomas County had 31 to 40 children for each slot opened, and Norton County had 21 to 30 children for each slot opened.
Prior to the 2019 pandemic, the state reported the child care deficit was 35.5%, with an economic impact of $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion.
Wasinger, who is a member of the Ellis County Child Care Task Force, noted. The pandemic has compounded the problem as more home care providers have chosen to close.
Effects of child care on local businesses
Members of the Ellis County Child Care Task Force met Thursday with state officials from Child Care Aware of Kansas and related child care support agencies.
The group discussed the importance of child care in maintaining a quality workforce, as well as how businesses could support the child care sector.
Sandy Gottschalk, coordinator of HaysMed Pathways to Excellence, said child care is a big staffing issue. One of the county’s largest employers, HaysMed employs 1,500 people.
Brett Schmidt, task force member and owner of Learning Cross Preschool at Hays, said he doesn’t see the desire for companies to become childcare providers. The cost is too high and they don’t want accountability, he said.
However, some companies in the region have agreed to provide premises to external service providers.
Wasinger said some communities have used a pay-to-play model. A business pays to reserve child care spaces whether or not it has employees using them.
Schmidt said paying to reserve seats was becoming more common. Some families wait to start a family until they know they have a place reserved.
Labor issues in child care
The group discussed ways to encourage new providers to enter the market, as well as existing providers to expand their services.
Schmidt said many hurdles exist for vendors.
Among the main issues is a stable workforce. He said wages tend to be low for child care workers and burnout tends to be high. Additionally, child care staff must have child development certification to supervise children in a licensed child care facility.
This requires 120 hours of early childhood education, 480 hours of experience working with children, an exam, and a verification visit.
Sarah Meitner, a task force member and director of the Heartland Community Foundation, suggested that local students could work on their accreditation while in high school. This would provide extra hands for child care providers and help produce a new generation of professionals entering the workforce upon graduation.
The state offers scholarships to students who wish to obtain their accreditation.
The group discussed the use of volunteers, but concerns were raised about training, as well as consistency and child safety.
While funds are needed for start-up costs for centers, funds should also be dedicated to staff recruitment and retention, Schmidt said.
Schmidt suggested suppliers join networks to share employees. He said suppliers are in dire need of replacement staff.
Schmidt also lamented that the cost of building or even renting space at Hays can be prohibitive for vendors. He said he was lucky the owner of his second center agreed to keep his rent affordable based on the services he offered.
Additional funding for providers
The group talked about ways organizations, such as Grow Hays and the Heartland Community Foundation, which have nonprofit status, could help providers apply for grants to renovate buildings for new daycares.
Meitner also suggested that a fund could be created within the foundation that could be used to support childcare providers. This fund could be the recipient of estate gifts, which could allow a donor to make a gift that could grow over time.
State officials also discussed a variety of funding sources and support programs for child care providers.
Christina Ferguson of Child Care Aware Kansas discussed a grant program that provides a third round of COVID relief funds to child care providers. Applications are open now.
Programs that are permanently accredited by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment can charge up to $1,800 per month for child care centers and up to $18,000 per month for large child care centers.
The group also discussed options that could reduce operating costs or increase provider revenues. Officials from the Ministry of Children and Families have suggested that providers encourage eligible low-income families to apply for child care subsidies.
“It helps the families and also helps the provider,” said Jennifer Pishny of the Ministry for Children and Families.
Kelly Horn of Sunshine Connections spoke about federally funded food assistance programs available to child care providers. Twenty-five percent of children enrolled in a program should be considered low-income children. The program supplements the cost of meals and snacks for children.
“Children get the right foods they need to grow and learn healthy eating habits,” she said.
For vendors who don’t qualify for the federal program, she suggested that vendors organize buying groups so they can take advantage of bulk purchasing discounts.
Child Care Training Opportunities in Kansas, Kansas Conscious Child Care, Kansas Association for the Education of Young Children and Coalition of Kansas Child Care Providers all provide an extensive list of services and resources for potential and existing vendors.
These groups can help with vendor start-up, business plans, ideas on creating contracts and policies, training, as well as peer support.