Maine’s child care market is broken. Parents, too often, can’t find or afford care for their young children. At the same time, those who operate child care centers struggle to retain staff, in part because they can’t afford to pay higher wages without charging parents more, which puts child care out of reach of more parents.
Because of these pressures and others, day care facilities are closing, in Maine and across the country, and parents – most often mothers – struggle to continue working without adequate child care.
We wouldn’t necessarily point to the government to solve these problems, but in the absence of other solutions, government intervention may make sense.
Gov. Janet Mills has allocated $12 million in her supplemental budget proposal to raise the wages of the state’s child care workers. Based on legislation sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, the salary increases would be in the form of bonuses for staff based, in part, on their levels of education and the quality ranking of the center or school where they work.
This is a proposal worthy of serious consideration because the lack of affordable child care in Maine is hampering employment at a time when businesses report ongoing difficulty hiring enough staff.
“Maine’s current and future workforce depends on accessible, affordable child care. Not only do working parents need a safe place to send their kids during the day, but research shows that successful early care and education programs can boost academic outcomes and even high school graduation rates,” Heather Johnson, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said in a recent press release from the governor’s office.“But as we know all too well, childcare providers have been through a lot these last few years, facing longtime challenges only exacerbated by the pandemic. By helping put this industry on stronger footing, we can address access gaps across our state – and help longtime providers and new ones succeed.”
Such help is sorely needed. In the first half of last year, 170 day care facilities in Maine had closed during the pandemic, the Portland Press Herald reported. Like other employers, day care providers say they can’t find enough workers. Low pay is one reason why.
A 2021 survey by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children found that 58 percent of the nearly 600 center-based providers that responded are understaffed and 43 percent cannot meet the demand for care and have a growing waitlist.
This has many implications for the entire workforce. If parents don’t have reliable child care, it hampers their ability to return or start to work. And, if parents are paid low wages, they can’t afford higher child care costs, which are needed to raise the pay for child care workers.
In July, the Maine Department of Labor sent a survey to more than 44,000 people seeking jobs in Maine. About 2,500 responded (an admittedly small group) and the results were published last fall.
Lack of child care was a barrier for 15 percent of those who responded to the survey. Women were more than three times more likely than men to cite child care as a barrier for their return to the workforce.
Beyond the bonuses, the Mills administration has allocated $25 million in federal funds, which are coming to Maine as part of the American Rescue Plan, to expand child care in Maine. Much of this money will go toward building, renovating and expanding childcare facilities and increase the number of school pre-K programs in the state.
As the Labor Department survey found, lack of safe, affordable care for their children keeps many parents out of the workforce. This can be detrimental to families, businesses and communities.
A comprehensive approach that increases the availability of childcare, while also ensuring that child care workers are better paid, is long overdue.