In late 2021, fast food restaurants in the Bridgeport, West Virginia area announced they were hiring at a starting salary of $12, $13 or even $14 an hour – far higher than the state’s $8.75 minimum wage. “You know the economy is changing and you have to keep up,” Trippett, the director of Cubby’s Child Care Center, said.
Like the rest of the country, she is struggling to hire staff and is actively working to boost morale and retention. Before Covid, she could hire for $9 or $10 an hour and expect to have some stability. Now she offers $11-$13 hourly—straining what the families who use her center can afford to pay—and still having trouble retaining employees. Trippett’s staff has been under enormous stress the past three years, she explains, but it has recently shifted. At first staff was worried about the transmission of Covid. Now, the pressure is financial.
“I’ve had some staff leave recently because they can’t afford child care for their own children at my center,” said Trippett. “Most of my staff that has left recently left to stay home with their kids, or go to work in the medical field where they can work nights…and not have to pay for child care.” Trippett used to offer a steep discount for staff members enrolling children at her center, but the rising costs of keeping her business afloat meant she had to make changes. She estimates half of her staff rely on WIC or SNAP government benefits to make ends meet.
What’s happening at Trippett’s center is evidence of the bleak picture for early child care educators and workers, a situation that has helped fuel a spike in depressive symptoms.
A new study published in January on See Partnerships by researchers Daphna Bassok, Isabelle Fares and Anna Markowitz tracked the pre- and post-COVID psychological well-being of educators at 100 child care centers across Virginia. Researchers found that depressive symptoms jumped from 19 percent to 32 percent between 2019 and 2022. Teachers were more likely to endorse every symptom of depression (across 7 items of the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale) in 2020, 2021 and 2022 than they were pre-COVID, with the highest rates of every symptom reported in 2022.
Half of the respondents had some evidence of food insecurity and were worried about running out of money before being paid again. A third were unable to sleep well because of financial worries, and 20 percent responded that many of their bills are past due.
“We wanted to look at the major issues affecting child care providers in the field,” said Anna Markowitz, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of education at UCLA. Over 100,000 child care workers have left the profession since the pandemic started, and the field has not entirely bounced back. While many child care workers, like those who work with Trippett, did receive a pay increase, Markowitz and her team found that most of the adjustments made between 2020 and 2022 did not keep pace with inflation.
Providers’ inability to offer a substantial wage increase is one reason people do not want to return to these jobs. The increase in educators’ and caregivers’ level of depression “was notable and substantial,” said Markowitz, and can affect the level of care provided. “A depressed caregiver may not be as quick to have those one-on-one interactions that we know are necessary to help kids grow,” she said.
The United States has historically treated child care as a separate entity from K-12 education, where paid sick leave, retirement benefits and wage growth are considered the norm nationally. Some of that separation is due to child care’s evolution as being a primarily custodial intuition, rooted in the social welfare system. Another factor is America’s intense cultural narrative surrounding the stay-at-home mother, even though the majority of homes in this country have two working parents. But research shows that high quality child care centers offer a substantial benefit to children, both for kindergarten readiness and overall lifetime learning. Even after child care received national attention during the Covid pandemic as a necessary part of a functioning economy, partisan gridlock killed the Build Back Better bill in 2022, which would have been a significant boost to the beleaguered industry.
The economics of child care make things difficult for any center to operate with profitable margins. Very young children require more staff, parents have limited resources to pay for full-time care, and child care workers rarely have enough income or benefits to support themselves, much less a family.
“Covid allowed people to say, ‘I’m done. I’m not going back to deal with all this stress. I need to get away from this,’” said Ayelet Lichtash, founder and executive director of the Alef Bet Montessori in Rockville, Maryland.
Lichtash found child care worker recruitment to be challenging in the post-Covid job market. She looked into ways to improve employee morale and solicited feedback from her staff members on how to make their jobs more manageable. She listened to the educators’ feedback and shortened the length of the day, contracting with another after-school program to watch children during the late afternoon hours so her teachers could be done earlier. Lichtash gave a seven percent raise across the board and hired an extra teacher so that staff could take days off without fear of coverage needs. Once a week, she hosts a team building meeting and makes time to celebrate monumental life events. Lichtash also schedules one-on-one meetings with her staff three times a year.
“My door is open,” she said, “and they can come in and say anything they want.”
Part of the reason Lichtash can make these accommodations is due to Maryland’s PreKindergarten Expansion Grant, which provides nearly full tuition for bilingual children, children with a disability or children with parents whose income falls under the poverty line. She explained the paperwork is so time-consuming, she had to work on her own time over the weekend to finish it. The extra financial support has been crucial in allowing her staff to feel supported and sustained in their roles.
Lichtash also benefits from the surrounding community: her child care center is located in a zip code where median home values are just shy of half a million dollars; she can call upon parents and the local community for fundraising support. But Lichtash’s fundraising and grant writing efforts cannot be easily scaled to other child care providers, particularly without additional state and federal investment.
“It’s clear in the wake of Covid, we have not made the investment to change the conditions of this workforce. There is a baseline need for their emotional and financial stability that hasn’t been met, and until we meet this need, we will be dealing with these same staffing and well-being issues over and over again,” said Markowitz. She estimates that the well-being of child care providers is likely to get worse as the Covid recovery dollars evaporate since the child care stabilization funds through the American Rescue Plan Act need to be spent or liquidated by September 2023, and the child care supplemental funds need to be spent or liquidated by September 2024.
The lack of an investment in a child care workforce is a “double deficit,” said Markowitz. “We aren’t giving the kids the start they need, and we are not paying the providers. We have built a system that is designed to facilitate an opportunity gap. By letting this workforce flounder, we are setting ourselves up for more inequalities down the line.”