pandemic challenges

Face the Facts: Pandemic Impact on Child Care Industry

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As of February this year, Connecticut's unemployment rate stands at 4.9%. That is more than a full point above the federal average.

Quality child care continues to be a barrier when it comes to getting parents back into the workforce.

The state was in need of 50,000 more daycare slots for infants and toddlers before the pandemic, according to a study done by Voices for Children. They believe the problem is getting worse, not better.

NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with Lauren Ruth, the research and policy director for Connecticut's Voices for Children, about the impact of the pandemic on the child care industry. Ruth also has a doctorate in social psychology.

Mike Hydeck: "It has been widely reported that daycare centers have had a tough time retaining teachers and other professionals because of low wages. Governor Lamont was able to move $200 million in COVID relief funds. What kind of impact was felt in a daycare industry from that, do you believe?"

Lauren Ruth: "So the federal relief money that's been provided to Connecticut has been a lifeline for the childcare industry, and it's allowed essential staff and families re-entering the workforce to access care after this economic shutdown. And the early part of the pandemic federal relief allowed Connecticut to provide $8.4 million to help subsidize care for close to 15,000 children and for over 2,000 frontline workers. By the fall of 2020, Connecticut provided $14.8 million in funding to help restart childcare programs that had shut down temporarily and to subsidize medical and cleaning supplies and train new staff in the face of an ongoing staff shortage. As the pandemic moved into 2021, Connecticut utilized $13.5 million to extend technology to help families connect with preschool programs for summer programs and to pay Care 4 Kids parent fees over the summer. Once we moved into the summer and fall of 2021, Connecticut was able to utilize ARPA dollars to provide an additional $210 million and stabilization funding for programs. This helps keep child care programs open."

Mike Hydeck: "The point being is, we know we've had, because of COVID and many other efforts, federal money has been pouring in. Now it's time it seems for the state to step up and do something on a more permanent basis in conjunction with the federal money. Right now, there are three bills before the Senate and the House. They're trying to address funding, because we know this has to be a partnership to make this happen in Connecticut. One of the things that is on the table as far as state lawmakers: there's a Senate bill that would add several thousand dollars of funding per child. Now that would be a state commitment in addition to the federal commitment, which we're also expecting more of. What are your thoughts on what the state should be doing here?"

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Lauren Ruth: "So essentially, the federal funding has been a band aid on a gaping wound. We have a system that provides a necessary service to families, but it relies heavily on fees charged to individual families. And that puts a large burden on both families and the providers for when families aren't able to make those fees. This makes the industry extremely sensitive to economic cycles. So we're very supportive of the multi-pronged effort that legislators are discussing to address the crisis that child care providers are facing, as well as families are facing. As you mentioned, there are a number of bills that seek to help support childcare providers. And they do this through methods such as expanding Care 4 Kids eligibility, expanding the Care 4 Kids reimbursement rate, lowering family co-pays to no more than 7% of the family's income, increasing school readiness reimbursements, increasing provider and staff salaries, and providing grants to accredited programs and programs seeking accreditation."

Mike Hydeck: "We also know that moving forward, there are so many things to address from a financial need, from an employment need, trying to pay teachers, trying to keep the cost low for families. If I said, 'look, here's a magic wand, you got to fix one thing right now,' what would it be?"

Lauren Ruth: "It feels impossible to pick favorites among the policies, may I pick two things?"

Mike Hydeck: "Okay, two, let's go with two."

Lauren Ruth: "So, as I said, I think the problem is that the United States continues to treat child care and education as a luxury for families with two earners, and as a safety net for families with very low incomes. But rather, it needs to be essential infrastructure that supports the entire economy in real time. So overall, we're advocating for creating a system of universal access to affordable and high quality child care, but right now, we think that we need, as talked about, to help providers receive the reimbursement increases they need so that they can pay their staff a fair wage - a wage that's fair for the amount of specialized education they have to receive as well as for the amount of high intensity labor they provide. But we also think this needs to be coupled with efforts to help families who are struggling amidst Connecticut's employment recovery lagging. It's two percent of mothers leaving."

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