Khulood Jamil never shut the doors of her home child care in California’s Bay Area in the early days of the pandemic. Many of her parents are nurses, police officers, firefighters and grocery store employees. “Those people cannot work from home and they need someone to watch their children,” she said. Now as things have returned to some kind of normalcy there is even more demand for her program given how many others closed down permanently. “I get a lot of calls, I have a waiting list,” she said.
But she can’t enroll any more families because she can’t hire enough staff members to watch more children. “I’m full,” she said.
Given the high costs of living in the Bay Area, her staff have left for other jobs “even if it’s not rewarding,” she said. “They need that money to put food on their table.” One employee left her for work in eldercare making $26 per hour, while another went to Starbucks, where she said she would get paid $21 per hour. Jamil currently has two part-time assistants, but she really needs a full-time employee and three part-time ones. One of her current teachers is a college student only working for the summer. When we spoke in early August she knew the student would be leaving soon, but “I cannot find anyone,” she said. She’s even posted fliers at nearby stores and social service offices, reached out to churches, and paid $150 a month to post the job on Care.com, but she hasn’t gotten any calls.
People looking for work know how little she’s likely to pay, she said. “I wish I could pay them $50 an hour, but from where? From where?” She’s already taken a more than 10 percent pay cut herself to pay her assistants more—the only way she and her husband get by is off of the income from his job. “We barely make it,” she said.
The teacher shortage in K-12 education has made national headlines as school districts have turned to things like hiring military veterans with no experience or cutting back to four-day weeks. But the staff shortage crisis in child care is just as acute, yet has received far less attention. There are still 88,300 fewer people employed in child care than there were in February 2020, even as the rest of the economy has reached its pre-pandemic employment levels and more and more children are in need of care.
The dynamics are also different than in K-12 education. While there is a huge pay gap between what teachers earn and what people with comparable education and experience can make in other jobs, child care providers make even less than teachers. Full-time child care center employees make just $14.01 per hour on average, less than half of what kindergarten teachers make. Many providers can only afford to pay minimum wage for employees who change diapers, wipe noses and foster children’s growth in the most important phase of their development.
The heart of the problem for child care providers is that they’re on their own: While K-12 education is funded by the government, child care is almost entirely private, and providers say they can’t ask parents to shoulder the full cost of what it takes to care for young children. Even when they enroll families who get government subsidies, the subsidies pay them less than market rates.
This was true before the pandemic, but the extra exposure and work it now takes to provide child care in the health crisis coupled with the current tight labor market has brought the child care staffing shortage to crisis levels.
Jamil boasts that she runs a very high quality program from her home, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and rated five stars. But she still can’t charge her parents the full cost of that kind of care, she said. Meanwhile, her costs are rising significantly with inflation, particularly for the food she cooks and serves to the children. “The prices are now triple,” she said. That leaves her no extra money to increase wages and benefits to attract more employees.
Jamil has run her program since 1996, but for the first time in 26 years, this year she had to tell parents one morning that she couldn’t open for two days because she didn’t have the staff. One employee called in sick and another had a death in the family, and Jamil knew she couldn’t do it by herself. She couldn’t ask someone random to come work for the day because every employee has to go through a background check and be fingerprinted. Normally she would have enough staff to cover such an emergency, but her ranks are too thin.
She bought all of the parents flowers and chocolates the following Monday as an apology, even though she knows “it wasn’t my fault,” she said. She always tells her parents months in advance about any closures. “I was crying, because this is not me,” she said. “I like to be consistent.”
Kym Ramsey got into child care as an entrepreneur, looking to marry her interest in business and her role as a mother. But even before the pandemic she saw that there is little money to be made. “Most businesses should be making at least 10 to 20 percent profit margin,” she said. “We in child care are at 1 to 2 percent, and that is you’re making a profit. So you’re just paying the bills.” She has a lot of families enrolled at her center in Pennsylvania who qualify for government subsidies, but she noted that she’s reimbursed at below market rates and less than what it costs to provide the care.
Ramsey was able to attract teachers before the pandemic by offering things like a 401(k) plan and professional development. But after she had to close her doors in the beginning of the pandemic, many employees didn’t want to return and she shrank from a staff of 26 to a staff of 16. That worked for a while as enrollment also stayed low and the government kept paying her as if she was still full. “Now we’re trying to get staff, no one’s coming,” she said. She’s down to 13 employees. One left to take a delivery job with Amazon, while the other two went to Target and a grocery store. They can make about $20 an hour in the new jobs. “That’s double what they were making with me,” she said. “I can’t compete.”
“I couldn’t attract anybody to come to replace them or even to add,” she said. She’s offering bonuses to people she hires who stay for a certain amount of time, but people have still left before they could claim the money. She had to close a classroom for school aged children this summer and, for the first time, she couldn’t accept a group of kindergarten and first grade aged children this fall. She’s at 33 percent enrollment, compared to about 90 percent pre-pandemic, because she doesn’t have the staff. She’s only using four of her eight rooms and she has a waiting list “a mile long,” she said.
The teachers she does have are doing extra—taking temperatures, overseeing lunch, bringing kids to and from buses, answering phones. She’s taken on debt to pay her head teachers more, but she can’t pay new hires at that level. “I am taking on debt in this sinking ship,” she said. “I don’t see a lifeline provided.” She had hoped that the child care and early childhood education investments laid out in Democrat’s Build Back Better plan would pass and allow her to keep paying higher wages, but the child care portion was stripped out of the final reconciliation bill.
She doesn’t know how much longer she can keep doing it. “It’s just financially no longer logical,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t care about children. I love children. But we have to take care of our own families.”
Benu Chabra can only afford to pay minimum wage and isn’t able to offer benefits. That makes it hard to compete with places like Starbucks, Peets Coffee and In-N-Out Burger, which are paying about $20 an hour with health insurance. “Why would they come work for us when they can go make more money there?” she said. “I wish I could do more.” Her license allows her to have 14 children in her California home, but she only has 12 because she’d need another staff member to increase enrollment. She currently has one full-time employee and one part-time one, but that’s not enough—when she’s fully staffed she has three employees plus herself. The week before we spoke one of her employees was out sick for two days and Chabra’s husband had to pitch in.
“It would be good if the government can give us some kind of funding to keep employees,” she said. “It would be easier and I would be able to afford more.”
Even those who have found a way to hire the talent they need know they’re in a precarious position and things could fall apart at any time. When Julie Clark and I spoke in March, she too was struggling to compete with the likes of Walmart, Amazon and Target to hire employees for her CAST Preschool and Childcare Center in Connecticut. “Why would you take a job earning $14 an hour wiping noses and diapering children when you can get a job for $20 an hour putting items in a box?” she said.
Last summer, just before the school year was set to begin, five teachers left because they were able to get jobs that paid better and offered better benefits. She put out help wanted ads, but when she asked people to come in for interviews they almost never showed up. It meant that she was pitching in and other teachers were doing things beyond their job descriptions, such as the art teacher overseeing a classroom. “It’s a constant juggling of people,” she said.” It also meant she had some classrooms with a single teacher and a group of children, a real challenge when it comes to dealing with bathrooms, diapers and lunch time. “One teacher, you’re just kind of getting through the day,” she said. She ended up having to hire people without any experience just to fill the gaps, many of whom she later regretting hiring and who eventually left. “If you could walk and talk and chew gum you were hired,” she said.
When we spoke again in August she had finally been able to fully staff up, and every classroom was fully enrolled. She had about four teachers who had worked for her previously who contacted her looking to return, “which is wild,” she said. But she also had to hire some inexperienced young people again. “Will the young people that I hired work out? I don’t know,” she said.
And there’s a big catch to her current good fortune: to attract enough staff she offered higher pay, but it’s more than she can actually afford. “I had to,” she said. “You can get a job at McDonald’s for $18 starting salary.” She’s been able to cover the expense with some funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and her state government, but all of those are one-time payments. “Unless the legislature passes something again, this will last me hopefully the year and then we’ll be in trouble,” she said. “You can’t tell a person, ‘Well I did offer you $16 an hour but now I have to pay you 15.’ Then you will lose people.”
Even so, she knows she could easily still lose the people she’s fought so hard to hire. “Usually this time of year at least one teacher comes to me and says that they’ve found a job somewhere else,” she told me in early August. “I’m waiting for that shoe to drop.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.