Parents near breaking point as COVID adds to child care crisis

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The parents are tired.

Take carer Tammi Lewis, who missed weeks of work and $7,800 in pay when her toddler’s childcare class in Plymouth suffered COVID outbreaks.

Or Kelsey and Christian Dahlager, who pay $3,000 a month for childcare for their two children — more than community college tuition and $300 more than a minimum-wage parent would take home in a month – but still find themselves juggling housework for a few more days watching an infant and toddler because carers are sick.

Parents in Minnesota and across the country have spent two years digging through the rubble of an already disparate child care system that has been further compromised by the pandemic, shutdowns and historical unpredictability. Many thought they would be able to create a new normal in the new year, but the omicron variant added another set of uncertainties.

The plight of low-wage, front-line parents who lack the ability to work remotely is most severe. But even top earners on paid vacation and sick leave said they were also grappling with the high cost and dwindling number of slots for Minnesota’s 354,000 children ages 5 and under who need care at home. full-time.

For Lewis, a single mother of three, that meant paying $1,200 over six weeks to keep her son’s place open even when his classroom was closed during quarantines. “I haven’t been paid for any of the days I missed at work, so I’ve been way behind on my bills,” said Lewis, who uses a bookshelf to get by and prays for her request for help. housing assistance is accepted.

An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that the government spends about $10,000 for every schoolchild between the ages of 5 and 17 in Minnesota. But he only spends $900 per child in the first three years of life and $2,500 per 3- and 4-year-old.

Families therefore bear the bulk of the costs of caring for young children. There is help for the poorest, but not enough. In 2018, the Wilder Foundation found that 58% of eligible poor families were not receiving child care subsidies due to a lack of public funds.

“Given the [high] the cost of child care compared to [low] wages, this mismatch hasn’t been good for parents trying to afford child care while working,” said Jodi Harpstead, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).

Many parents in Minnesota quit their jobs to care for their children in the wake of the pandemic, she said. “It’s just everyone dealing with COVID and cases coming and going and having different quarantine periods and trying to make it all work in your life. It’s hard to keep a job when that happens.”

About 76% of all parents in the Twin Cities work outside the home and 12.9% of all Minnesota children live in poverty, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

With limited public funding, the result is often a “do-it-yourself” child care system that frustrates families, understaffed employers, and child care centers – a system that is stressed almost to the point of breakup, parents say.

“The number one problem with child care is cost,” said Laura Gorke, ACT program director at Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis.

“The majority of [our] families are single parent. And generally, with that low socioeconomic status, the idea of ​​being able to afford child care isn’t always an option,” Gorke said. “And certainly, during the pandemic, child care centers have had a lot of staffing issues.

As a result, availability, even when parents can afford care, has become a bigger issue.

EDS research shows that fewer childcare providers are entering the market. Additionally, like other low-wage industries, they are facing staff shortages exacerbated by burnout due to COVID-19-related stress.

For example, in 2021 alone, Minnesota lost 494 in-home child care businesses, eliminating slots for 10,217 children, DHS found. Closures represented jumps – from 323 in 2020 and 420 in 2019.

Today, there are just 6,700 home or family providers statewide, down from 14,300 in 2000. And while the state’s largest child care centers have expanded, the uptick has been slight – from 1,600 companies in December 2000 to 1,815 last month.

Together, there’s a decrease in availability and that “makes it very difficult” to find affordable childcare providers – especially in rural areas and for infants, Harpstead and others said.

To help, federal and state governments allocated $958 million last year to shore up Minnesota’s shackled industry through 2024.

Public funds have materialized through monthly grants to Minnesota child care providers, early learning grants for parents, regular and temporarily enhanced child tax credits, and increased wages for workers. underpaid child care.

Additional federal aid for the industry could arrive if Congress passes the Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill. But the rescue plan is far from certain. Another source of help for parents – expanded child tax credits – expired at the end of 2021.

The Minnesota Business Partnership, Chamber of Commerce and Project Itasca are working with Governor Tim Walz’s Great Start For All Minnesota Children task force to explore ways to help stressed parents receive more paid time off, referrals from emergency child care and other family-friendly benefits.

But public and private responses to the childcare crisis are often criticized for being fragmented, choppy, unsustainable or failing to address the most delicate annoyances of a strained system.

“My family is so privileged…but we still face daily issues with the American work/childcare system, whether it’s the exorbitant cost, everyone constantly being sick and then trying to care for the kids. while working from home, or dismal staff salaries that result in turnover,” said Dahlager, St. Paul’s mother who spends much of her salary on daycare. “There’s no winning in this system, you just have to get out of it.”

The Dahlagers had their second child during the pandemic and tried to work from home while caring for their baby, then their 2-year-old. The Target marketing manager and her husband lasted a month juggling diaper changes, breastfeeding, work, Zoom meetings and conference calls.

They eventually enrolled the children in their neighborhood Jardin Spanish Immersion Academy.

“Paying so much for daycare, you’d be shocked to learn that many daycare workers are earning minimum wage. That’s heartbreaking in itself,” Dahlager said. “I just feel like the child care system in America is supposed to be there to support the working industry in America. But it doesn’t seem like those systems fit together.”

No need to tell Tilnika Parker that.

The single Minneapolis mother of two weathered riots in her Lake Street neighborhood after the murder of George Floyd and then had to quit her job as a certified nursing assistant in St. Paul when COVID-19 hit in 2020 because the subsidized daycare she used closed for six months.

When the center reopened, Parker returned to work as a nursing assistant, earning $17 an hour. She thought she was ready. Then the center experienced several outbreaks, sending its healthy children into quarantine for 14 days each time and forcing Parker to miss work.

“We would be more at home than he was at daycare,” she said. “It’s been hard. I’m struggling.”

She was warned that she could be fired. Now she works night shifts when she can find babysitters. She borrowed money to pay the rent.

Before the pandemic, every time a child was sick, a parent missed a day or two of work. Now quarantine rules and continual outbreaks can mean missing a week or two of work and pay.

Sheilah Howard, Director of Career Services at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, said: “Each week we work on these issues with our [parent] clients.”

Last week, the state reduced quarantine times for daycares, good news for daycares, parents and employers.

Some 62% of surveyed members of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said the shortage of childcare services was problematic and hampered business growth.

“For us, childcare is just a huge issue,” said Karen Edwards, spokeswoman for Plymouth-based confectioner Maud Borup, who operates a factory in the Centre, 70 miles south of the Twin Cities. “During COVID, many child care centers here closed and many never opened.”

The company lost so many workers that it struggled to get holiday candy orders from customers such as Target, Nieman Marcus, Hy-Vee, Michaels and Party City.

To stem attrition, the company purchased land next to its factory to build its own daycare centre.

“With the current shortage of childcare options,” Edwards said, “our goal is to ease the burden on our working parents and help us retain our workforce.”

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