A recent survey underscored the difficulty child care centers are having when it comes to hiring and retaining qualified staff.

That, in turn, can explain part of the difficulty employers have when it comes to bringing employees with children back to work.

“Haywood County has had three permanent child care center closures since January 2020,” said Sheila Hoyle, director of the Southwestern Child Development Commission. “An additional fourth program has changed hands.”

Of the closures, one was a large facility and two were small family child care homes, she said.

While there is capacity to provide care for more children, Hoyle said, there are fewer children in centers now, largely because of an inability to hire staff.

Haywood County’s 36 childcare facilities range from small family centers in homes that serve up to five children to several larger facilities that serve more than 100.

“Our system is called ‘mixed service delivery’ as programs are operated by the public schools, Head Start, churches, nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses,” Hoyle said.

Most centers that serve children through Southwestern’s subsidy program have capacity to care for more children, a waiting list and the money to cover the cost. The holdup is a staffing shortage.

Hoyle provided several examples of the decreased numbers for subsidized care slots ch≠tween February 2020 and now. Kid Connection in Canton, for instance, is caring for 32 fewer children, Eagle’s Nest in Waynesville has 15 fewer children, Dellwood Baptist, Waynesville, 10 fewer children and St. John’s is caring for 10 fewer children.

Low pay

Childcare workers have historically been among the lowest-paid professionals in the country.

A survey conducted by the N.C. Child Care Resource & Referral Council in September showed nearly one third of child care providers in the state abruptly closed classrooms with little notice to parents.

Despite increasing salaries by more than $1 an hour, or about $2,000 annually, 80% of the child care centers surveyed reported it is more difficult to hire staff now than before COVID.

Janet Singerman, president of Child Care Resources Inc., noted that with the higher salaries, child care workers are now paid about the same as those in retail or grocery stores — jobs that require far less education than for those working at child care centers.

“The child care staffing crisis we are currently experiencing is driven by the inability of program operators to pay higher wages without passing increased operating costs on to families who are already struggling to afford the cost of care,” Singerman said. “Without increasing wages, North Carolina families will continue to struggle to find safe and reliable child care well into the future.”

In 2019, Child Care Services Association showed the average early care and education teaching staff made $10.97 an hour in Haywood County, and directors made $15.63, which was lower that the state level of $12 an hour for teaching and $19.23 for directors.

Subsidies, cost

In North Carolina, there is a state subsidy program where families have a co-pay for childcare that is set at 10% of the family’s gross monthly income if family earnings are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. The program covers birth to age 5.

Under the current subsidy guidelines, a family of four making $52,000 with an infant and 4-year-old would pay about $5,200 per year for childcare. Families whose earnings fall outside the income guidelines would have to pay the full cost of childcare, which in Haywood County would be about $20,400 per year.

“As you can see with the current policy, families experience a cliff effect,” Hoyle said, noting the sharp contrast in the above and below income guidelines.

Hoyle said child care programs by the Southwestern Child Development Commission increased lead teacher pay to be in-line with the state-wide averages and also upped the salaries of the lowest paid employees.

“However, Southwestern’s largest recruitment tool is benefits,” she said, noting employees now receive a fully paid comprehensive health insurance program, retirement benefits, other group insurance participation availability and a generous vacation, sick leave and holiday package. In addition, there’s an employee discount for child care.

Since 1972, Southwestern Child Development Commission has focused solely on early care and education of children as well as the professional development of childcare staff, educators and administrators in the western region of North Carolina.

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