KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — A chronic staffing shortage at daycare centers in America’s largest overseas military community has left hundreds of children on waiting lists and few options for parents.
By early August, the Army and Air Force Children’s Development Centers in the Kaiserslautern Military Community could only process about 65 percent of the demand. And one of the 11 centers is closed because staff numbers never returned to pre-pandemic levels.
About 190 children were on the Army’s waiting list in August, and the list of Air Force centers had some 250 names.
Parents can apply at Army or Air Force facilities, so officials warn that waiting lists are likely to include duplicate applications from families willing to drive further if they are accepted.
The backlog reflects a persistent problem for military and Department of Defense employees. Four years ago, in September, the number of children awaiting placement was almost the same as today, despite attempts to create more places and to increase the hourly wages of educators.
Rebecca Ward, a pharmacist and military wife of a Landstuhl Regional Medical Center ophthalmologist, has been waiting since arriving in July to secure a spot for her 4-year-old daughter Lily.
Ward said the last time she checked, Lily was 30th on the list.
“It seems like every time we call to try to find out where she is on the list, she’s come down,” Ward said. “She just keeps getting pushed lower and lower. It’s really disheartening.
Dual-service couples and others get priority child care slots, which can mean months of waiting for others in lower priority tiers.
The problem stems from a lack of qualified caregivers to fill existing jobs, not space or resource constraints, said Rhonda Hunter, director of family and morale, welfare and recreation for the garrison. of the US Army Rheinland-Pfalz.
The garrison is operating at 72% capacity, which means it has the resources to accommodate up to 274 children.
“With 34 other team members on board in our Child Development Centers, we could place 100 more children in care,” Hunter said.
At Air Force child care centers, the overall staffing level is just 40%, with 92 vacancies, according to the 86th Airlift Wing.
Air Force and Army installations in the Kaiserslautern military community largely recruit military wives, most of whom leave after three years.
The services recruit at job fairs and offer incentives, including up to $1,000 in retention and recruiting bonuses.
Although officials say child and youth services programs offer competitive wages and benefits, entry-level employees are paid $16.70 an hour, which is barely more than what they earn. base commissary food service workers or base baristas.
These positions start at $15.39 and $15.75 respectively and require less training and responsibility.
“I just wish I could help everyone”
In a spousal group on Facebook, a parent referred to the frequency of “take your child to work during the day” that some units allowed to deal with the shortage.
Airmen more often worked from home during the height of the pandemic, but most units moved away from telecommuting.
Although units retain some flexibility, telecommuting is not an option in many areas of military employment.
For those who can and want to commit the time, home schooling is possible. In a 2014 notice, the German Ministry of Education said German homeschooling bans did not apply to US personnel under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement.
Other recommendations from spouses included a private Facebook page with a compilation of local babysitters. The Ramstein Babysitters page has over 5,000 members offering or looking for temporary in-home care help.
However, helping other service members might not be as easy as it seems. According to the Air Force, anyone regularly providing child care for more than 10 hours per week at their home on base must be licensed. Failure to obtain a license could result in the loss of basic accommodation.
Individuals living on or off base can become licensed home child care providers, who are independent business operators and work under their own contracts with the parents of the children in their care.
Kenia Guijarro, the wife of an Air Force intelligence specialist in Ramstein, found it the ideal option after arriving in October.
The mother-of-three provides home care from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the village of Matzenbach. Rules limit her to watching no more than five children at a time.
“For me, it’s about peace of mind, knowing that I can be home with my child, and I can spend the day with my own children and I can watch them grow socially and emotionally as they learn to make friends,” she says. “My favorite thing is that every day I help other military families like ours.”
Shortly after Guijarro qualified as a caregiver on the program, however, the applications started pouring in.
“I’ve received an overwhelming amount of messages which is so heartbreaking for me because I just wish I could help everyone,” she said. “Refusing families was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
To cope with a growing number of children 5 and under without child care spaces, Ramstein in 2019 began prioritizing its limited basic housing options for people like Guijarro who agree to become service providers. family care.
German options are rare
US servicemen are allowed to take their children to German kindergartens or day care centers, called kitas. But these facilities have little incentive to confront the Americans.
The law guarantees German children aged 12 months or more the right to child care. Children of US service members and civilians under SOFA are excluded from this right.
This means that American children who are lucky enough to enroll can be kicked out to make room for children with German nationality, although some parents have challenged this on legal grounds.
On its online portal, Kaiserslautern currently lists 70 childcare centers offering more than 3,500 childcare places within the city limits and 68 facilities in the surrounding district.
“In the city of Kaiserslautern there are too few places for the demand,” said Anika Sedlmeier, spokeswoman for the office of the mayor of Kaiserslautern. “This means that even for German children it is sometimes difficult to get a place in time.”
For years, the city has worked to increase that number, Sedlmeier said. But the availability of places has recently decreased somewhat due to the influx of refugees from Ukraine.
“In the current situation, the children of American military families cannot have a place,” Sedlmeier said.
Parents generally had an easier time finding care in villages outside the city of Kaiserslautern. But there are also a shortage of places in many of these communities, said Georgia Matt-Haen, spokesperson for the Kaiserslautern district government.
Military personnel are not prohibited from speaking with German daycares, but the chances of successfully securing a place are slim.
Exceptions are made for Germans married to an American and NATO members from European countries who are registered as residents of Kaiserslautern. However, families with mixed residence may also be subject to German taxes.
The remaining alternatives include religious groups and private institutions, such as the SBW Westpfalz International School in Landstuhl.
“There has been a lot of interest in joining our school,” spokeswoman Charlotte Ducker said. “The greatest interest in placement is in the early years, which has been the biggest issue for military parents. We are able to offer a solution for many of them.
It welcomes 189 children of almost 20 nationalities. Of America’s 93 children, about a third are in the care of active duty personnel, Ducker said.
Trying to keep up with demand, SBW recently opened two more classes for children as young as 3½, Ducker said.
But with annual tuition starting at $14,400, enrollment at SBW is priced out of reach for most military personnel.
The lack of childcare for DOD personnel is not unique to Germany. A 2021 Blue Star Families survey found that childcare availability continues to be an issue for military families around the world.
Meanwhile, the problem of parents in the military community of Kaiserslautern is likely to be prolonged. The army is looking to reposition around 500 special forces soldiers from Stuttgart to Baumholder as early as this year.
And Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has increased US support for NATO, a mission that relies heavily on Ramstein as an airlift hub.