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The Soaring Costs Of Day Care Stifle Some Parents' Return To Work

NOEL KING, HOST:

We know that a lot of workplaces can't find enough employees right now for a variety of reasons - among the employers, child care providers like day care centers. Here's Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR in Lansing, Mich.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: During the pandemic, tens of thousands of child care centers across the country were forced to find new ways to work. They had to embrace physical distancing and masking requirements while finding enough workers to keep their doors open. Many could not. Others reduced hours and availability. Elisabeth Tobia runs EC3, a day care company operating in downtown Lansing for nearly 40 years. Before the pandemic, Tobia was managing two locations and the care of nearly 200 children. Today, the second location has closed, and enrollment at EC3 has been cut in half. Despite increasing demands for child care, Tobia says she's struggling to find new staff.

ELISABETH TOBIA: We've had to put a freeze on enrolling children until we can find skilled people who want to work in this field. So now we're operating at a level that still isn't break-even for us financially, but we can't find people to apply for jobs.

JOKISCH POLO: The challenges of providing affordable child care have increased substantially for day care providers since the pandemic began. According to data from the Center for American Progress, costs per child have gone up to an average of 47%, in part because day care programs had to reduce capacity, sanitize spaces and increase worker pay. Simon Workman is a national expert on child care finance.

SIMON WORKMAN: Because families can't afford that, the providers are either cutting staff, or they are going into the red. Right? They are taking on personal debts. They are taking on business debt. They are not replacing people when they leave.

JOKISCH POLO: Workman says the pandemic highlighted how severely underpaid child care providers have been for decades. Brooke Aernouts' experience bears that out. During the pandemic, she left her job at a day care center because she didn't feel like it was worth exposing herself to COVID-19 for the low wages she was earning.

BROOKE AERNOUTS: It's really frustrating to be in this field and to dedicate so much time and energy to essentially raising children to be paid poverty wages.

JOKISCH POLO: Simon Workman says once assistance from the federal government stops, he expects many more child care centers to close. With rising costs, there may not be enough parents who can afford upwards of $20,000 per year. In Michigan, a bipartisan deal was reached to use $1.4 billion of federal money to expand affordable child care options for parents and provide additional money to child care workers. But Elisabeth Tobia says it's just a temporary fix.

TOBIA: So when we begin to realize that preschool and education, even for the zero to 3 age group, is more important than college education and needs to be funded accordingly, we're going to be struggling with this for a long time.

JOKISCH POLO: Providers hope the next step will be acknowledging just how crucial good day care is, both for children's development and for their parents' ability to return to the workplace.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONLIT SAILOR'S "THE FOG IS LIFTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.