Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

“Child care workers are vanishing and it’s hurting the entire economy,” CNN warns in this headline of one of its business news stories, which reports:

“Since losing one-third of its workforce at the outset of the pandemic, the child care industry has seen a jobs recovery that’s been slow and incomplete.

“And now it’s starting to backslide.

“After shedding 4,500 jobs from September through November, preliminary estimates from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the child day care services industry lost another 3,700 jobs in December.”

And, of course, these workers aren’t actually “vanishing.” They’re being driven out of their jobs by low wages and tough working conditions.

Without enough child care workers, there aren’t enough child care spots, which means many parents will struggle to be able to work, and without enough workers the economy can’t thrive.

“Now that we’re seeing a decrease [in employment], that should be worrying for many folks who are relying on these services,” Caitlin McLean, director of multi-state and international programs at the University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, tells CNN.

“This is absolutely a contributor to the wider worker shortage that we’re seeing.”

Needless to say, the pandemic has made things worse.

“It’s definitely different now than it was two, three years ago, from a provider’s perspective,” Lisa Keller, who runs a home-based child care center in Horace, North Dakota, tells CNN. “You have your challenging and stressful days, but now you hear a kid cough [and you wonder if] this kid has a cold, and it’s no big deal, or we could be shutting down for 20 days.”

As CNN explains, the findings of a research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research coincide with providers’ and families’ personal experiences. Written by researchers from Washington State University, the research paper notes:

“Our results suggest that while closures have had little impact on whether parents work at all, they have had significant effects on whether parents work full time (at least 35 hours) and the number of hours worked per week. These effects are concentrated among low-educated parents, suggesting that such individuals had a more difficult time adjusting their work life to closures.”

One solution is to raise child care workers’ wages.

“Child care workers have long been underpaid and given fewer benefits like health insurance, according to a November 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute [EPI],” CNN says.

“On average, child care workers in the US are paid $13.51 per hour, according to the EPI analysis.That’s nearly half of what the average US worker makes, at $27.31 an hour.”

“The EPI suggests a minimum hourly wage between $21.11 and $25.95 an hour.

However, raising wages creates a potential Catch-22: It could push child care costs higher, and those expenses are already one of the largest for families in the US.”

“The solution, said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the EPI and one of the authors of the November 2021 analysis, is more government involvement. This could include universal pre-K, financial support for providers as well as subsidies to families, ‘with provisions that guarantee higher wages and better working conditions for the workers,’ Gould said.

“ ‘That could happen at the federal level, but there’s no reason why state and localities can’t take up those efforts,’ she added.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would help by making significant federal investments in child care. But it has stalled in the Senate.

Fortunately, as CNN explains, states like North Dakota are pushing ahead. Last year, the state used Covid relief funds to support child care programs, and this year, North Dakota “plans to launch a new child care career pathway program to support aspects like training, certification, recruitment and retention. This is in addition to ongoing efforts such as providing startup grants for child care businesses and offering child care assistance for job hunting parents.”

Please share this and similar stories with your networks and with your elected officials. 

It’s crucial to remind everyone that high-quality early education and care is essential for children, essential for parents, and essential for the economy.