Child care workers are fleeing the industry. Why are so many leaving their jobs?

·9 min read

Sydney Pardee, an early childhood educator at a Fort Worth child care center, is exhausted.

She is working longer hours these days, and working with more kids now than she did in the past.

Her passion for working with children has kept her in the field as a growing number of colleagues slipped away for higher paying jobs at places like call centers, gas stations and restaurants.

But she is on the job hunt as well.

Pardee is among the hundreds of thousands of child care workers remaining in an industry that has become the focus of national debate, as policymakers look to fix a system that has struggled for decades.

“We’ve reached an intersection where more families are needing care because they are going back to work, and more people within the (child care) industry are becoming very burnt out,” Pardee said. “People are realizing they can go make more money working elsewhere and not be as stressed.”

The child care sector in the United States, a profession that is paid among the lowest in the nation, is in an escalating state of crisis, advocates and experts say. Droves of qualified early educators are leaving the field for industries that pay higher wages and provide more benefits, just as millions of Americans seek child care in order to return to the workforce.

But the child care crisis — catapulted into the national conversation by the coronavirus pandemic — has been quietly unfolding in communities across the U.S. for years.

“The early childhood workforce has really been in crisis for decades,” said Abby Copeman Petig, the research director for the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkley. “It is expensive for programs to keep recruiting and training new staff and it is demoralizing and stressful for employees to remain since they are expected to cover absences. The early childhood field was already sort of at a tipping point.”

What the pandemic did, Petig said, was spur thousands of workers to seek alternative employment and shine a light on the fragility of the system.

Leaving the industry

Wendie Wallaert has a passion for working with children.

She started in high school as a nanny and later took on a role as a preschool teacher at a private preschool in Fort Worth, where she worked with a large classroom of students.

“I really enjoy their energy,” she said. “They have just this magnetic field that you’re just drawn to. They have so much energy and so much love, and it’s so fun being around the kids.”

But in May of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic ground the economy to a halt, Wallaert left the industry, later getting a job as a server at Texas de Brazil.

She wasn’t alone.

The child care industry dropped nearly 373,000 employees, or 36% of its workforce in those first months, with educators filing for unemployment, or taking jobs as servers and retail workers. As the economy reopened, and enrollment ticked back up, child care operators ran into a problem: No one was coming back.

In August, 85% of the child care workforce in Texas had returned compared to February of 2020.

As a result, classrooms closed, the capacity at many centers was downsized and some centers and home-based child care businesses closed their doors for good.

Bryan’s House, a childcare provider in North Texas that serves children with special needs, has a wait-list of 28 students due to a staffing shortage.

“It breaks my heart to have a wait-list and know that there are children who need us who we just can’t serve right now,” Bryan’s House CEO Abigail Erickson-Torres said. “We’re ready for the kids to come to Bryan’s House – we just need the teachers.”

The childcare provider is publishing wages publicly for the first time in its history in an attempt to attract teachers, citing the low average pay for childcare workers in the state which is less than $12 an hour.

There are five vacancies contributing to the wait-list, with jobs open starting at $16-$19 an hour for qualified candidates with a Child Development Associate credential or 10 years of experience, all the way up to $25-$28 for candidates with a Master of Education degree.

At Crescent Academy, a child care center in Haltom City, owner Tameka Bryan has been juggling the roles of teacher, owner and enrollment specialist as she also attempts to fill five vacancies, up from 1-2 prior to the pandemic. She said before the pandemic the staffing at her child care center was up and down, with employees working there an average of six months.

“During the pandemic, it became even more challenging. Staff is scarce. Unemployment puts a damper on it, because they make more on unemployment than they would working here,” Bryan said.

Bryan, who has capped enrollment and started a waiting list for parents, said some employees left to work in restaurants, citing the need for higher wages and the lack of growth available in the child care industry.

“With everyone competing to just hire staff, it has placed a huge increase on the amount of money that staff is wanting,” she said. “And it is hard when you want to increase the staff dollars, but it doesn’t match with the pay-rate that a parent is paying.”

A broken market

That breakdown between the amount of money working parents can afford to pay for child care and the amount of money early educators are willing to work for is at the center of the current staffing shortage.

In Fort Worth, according to child care information website CareLuLu, a family faces an expense of about $647 a month or $7,764 a year per child.

A report by the Department of Treasury published last month laid bare the dire situation created by the way the child care system in the U.S. had been operating prior to the pandemic.

“The free market works well in many different sectors, but child care is not one of them,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, describing the report. “It does not work for the caregivers. It does not work for the parents. It does not work for the kids. And because it does not work for them, it does not work for the country.”

According to the report, the average American family would have to spend 13% of their annual income in order to obtain quality child care, more than food and in some cases their mortgage or college tuition.

That puts parents like Satia Thomas in a bind.

Thomas, a Fort Worth school district teacher, said she has struggled to find daycare for her two young children when she had to teach virtually at the outset of the pandemic.

“It was very, very costly and expensive to find a reputable daycare,” Thomas said. “It was something that we had to find immediately because we didn’t have any other options.”

For many mothers, like Macari Ellington of Crowley, access to child care is a prerequisite to entering the workforce.

“If I didn’t have affordable child care, I probably would have been a stay-at-home mom, or worked on the weekend,” Ellington said.

That is exactly the decision thousands of mothers are making, leading to 26,000 women leaving the workforce in September, the largest drop of the year so far.

Petig, the UC Berkley researcher, said this trend could continue as vacancies remain unfilled in centers across the country.

“What we are seeing is that men are ... returning to the workforce and we’re actually seeing more women leave,” she said. “And one could assume, pretty reasonably, that that is due to child care responsibilities, when you have your center shut down, or your family child care provider goes out of business.”

Wallaert, who said she is looking to return to the child care industry at some point, said the low income and dwindling hours amid the pandemic were key to her decision to leave, in addition to philosophical differences over how the preschool was teaching children.

“If there was more money involved I think that I would have chosen to stay,” Wallaert told the Star-Telegram. “It is hard to pay bills with the amount of money I was making there, especially in Texas with everything being so expensive and the minimum wage being so low.”

Looking to the future

Tori Mannes, the CEO of ChildcareGroup in Dallas, said she is hopeful about the next chapter of early childhood education in the U.S.

“This is the time I think that we have to get it right,” Mannes said. “We have to make the changes to compensate early childhood workers and to provide them not only with a living wage job, but benefits and a career path that is going to incentivize them to want to stay in the profession.”

Locally, programs like Camp Fire First Texas are expanding apprenticeship programs that tackle credentialing and career advancement, while also working to negotiate higher wages for early educators.

On the state level multiple agencies like the Texas Workforce Board are taking a renewed interest in expanding and stabilizing the industry through direct funding and expansion of the states Quality Rating and Improvement System known as Texas Rising Star.

On the federal level a historic investment into the early childhood education sector hangs in the balance as Congress debates the Build Back Better Plan. The nearly $2 trillion investment would, if passed, establish a $15 minimum wage and expand training for early childhood caregiver and reduce the cost of care for low-income families.

The administration is also hoping to invest $425 billion in establishing universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the nation.

Melanie Rubin, a North Texas early education advocate, said that while the staffing shortage is currently worse than it was at the peak of the pandemic due to the influx of demand from parents reentering the workforce, the crisis has come unprecedented public attention and potential for change.

“As scary as it is, there is some real opportunity if we could get our heads around how to do it,” Rubin said. “I think corporations are beginning to come to the table, philanthropy is beginning to come to the table, because they are feeling it personally.”

Petig said without robust public investment, however, the exodus from the profession may continue.

“I think until we see significant public investment, I don’t understand why folks would return to these jobs when they have other options out there,” she said. “They love doing this work, but they have to make an impossible choice between doing the work they are trained for and supporting their own families, because their wages really just aren’t enough to subsist on.”

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