Pandemic worker shortage hits day care centers, and parents are struggling

·6 min read

Michelle Pagano has been struggling for months to find employees to work at the two day care centers she directs in New York's Hudson Valley region.

Even as signs of post-pandemic life emerge, no one seems to be interested.

"Forget about qualified applicants — I don't have a single resume on my desk," she told TODAY Parents. "I don't even have a job pool."

Pagano, the director of Pattycake Playhouse, which has locations in Newburgh and New Windsor, New York, said that finding employees during the pandemic has been nearly impossible and seems to be getting worse. The employees she has managed to retain are overworked and burned out.

Her struggles are shared by child care providers across the country, as well as parents desperate to find care for their children as they face increasingly long wait lists.

Many parents feel stranded

Child care has never been easy to find. But the recent worker shortage has only worsened the problem, creating challenges for parents who are feeling pressure to to go back to the office.

"In the 31 years I've been in the industry, I've never seen a shortage as severe as it is right now," said Jo Kirchner, chief executive officer of Primrose Schools, a large chain of early childhood education centers that's headquartered in Atlanta.

Matthew Hashiguchi, a filmmaker and professor in Savannah, Georgia, put his 16-month-old daughter on day care wait lists months before she was born. This tactic wasn't unheard of even before the pandemic, especially for infant classrooms that require stricter child-to-staff ratios and in large cities that tend to have long wait lists.

At first, he and his wife kept their daughter home because they were worried about the coronavirus. But after several months of trying to work from home while raising a baby, Hashiguchi reached a breaking point: He needed help.

"We started reaching out to the places where we had been on wait lists and they had no spots," he said. "It's been going on two years now."

An industry with unique challenges

There are multiple reasons for the lack of child care workers. It’s an industry that requires hard work for typically low pay, experts say. Day care centers say they can’t pay employees more without raising tuition, creating a vicious cycle. Pagano pointed to the increased unemployment benefits as one reason she may be struggling to bring employees on board.

Turnover has always been high in child care, though — some employees look at day care centers as stepping stones to jobs in public school districts, where benefits are better and summers are off, Pagano said. And she can't blame them.

"We're losing quality people in the field because it's just not worth it," she said. "That's my biggest frustration."

Kirchner pointed to the fact that most child care workers are women, who lost or left employment at a much higher rate than men during the pandemic. More than 4 million women dropped out of the labor force between February and April 2020; about half had not returned as of May 2021, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said earlier this year.

“Child care is very labor-intensive,” Kirchner said. “It’s not a work-from-home industry. You can’t deliver child care via Zoom.”

Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Assocation, told CNBC that the industry lost 350,000 employees, or about a third of its workforce, during the pandemic.

There are other factors contributing to child care’s supply and demand issue as well. Some child care centers, especially smaller, home-based ones, were forced to shut down permanently during the pandemic. With many companies announcing plans to bring employees back to the office in person this fall, parents who have managed to juggle child care and remote work until now may be flooding day care centers with applications all at the same time. In places where people fled the city for the suburbs, those surrounding areas may now be facing an influx of demand they haven't seen before.

Related: The pandemic inspired many American workers to leave their comfortable, stable jobs.

Both locations of Pattycake Playhouse are about an hour and a half outside of New York City and have wait lists.

"It's not that we don't have the space; it's that we don't have the staffing," Pagano said. "We've had parents say, 'I can give you extra money!' I wish it was that easy."

While multiple industries are facing staffing shortages, they're uniquely problematic in child care.

"When restaurants are short on helpers, they close the dining room and only do takeout for the day," Pagano explained. "I go to Target and the line is long and I think, 'Oh, they're short-staffed.' But we don't have those options. We run strictly on ratios. We can't just have a longer line. We have to have the bodies. So if someone calls out, it turns into having to turn people away at the door, or getting our staff who are already working 50-plus hours a week to fill those shifts, and then they're getting burnt out."

‘We’re kind of a forgotten job’

While the pandemic may have put a spotlight on the importance of child care, providers say they still aren’t getting enough help.

“I feel like we’re kind of a forgotten job,” Pagano said. “Even when COVID started, there was a lot of attention on front line workers and essential workers, but rarely was day care mentioned — my staff was still wiping noses and changing diapers and washing hands with very little recognition.”

Related: Her job interview with a toddler was adorable, and also spotlights a bigger issue that many working moms face.

She said that government grants to offset operating costs and pay for personal protective equipment during the pandemic have been helpful, but what she really needs is funding that is directly intended to boost her staff’s pay.

Kirchner agreed that more governmental support, for both parents and the people who take care of their children, is the only solution.

“We absolutely have to have outside intervention in order to create or transform the child care sector in America,” she said, adding that the recent child tax credit is a start.

At least for Hashiguchi, there is light at the end of the tunnel: He recently got the good news that a child care center near him has an opening. His daughter will start day care for the first time later this month.