Childcare ‘crisis’ underlies labor problems

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Shannon Wink, a digital strategy and communications professional in Fishtown, has been trying unsuccessfully to get her 15-month-old daughter to daycare since last winter. Each time, the answer is: Sorry, we’re sold out. Try again later.

“You can’t just snap your fingers and find child care. It’s a real process, ”she said.

Suppliers and their lawyers say their hands are tied. Salaries in the industry, coupled with lingering concerns over COVID-19, make it difficult to attract enough early childhood teachers to meet demand.

“I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, we’ve always talked about the challenges of hiring… but we’ve never seen this before,” said Diane P. Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

A shortage of child care workers in Pennsylvania is one of the factors contributing to larger-scale labor shortages in the economy. With thousands less spaces for children, many parents who are trying to re-enter the workforce or who are fired from the office are stuck in the realities of the child care industry. Government assistance to suppliers has so far failed to bring the industry back to pre-pandemic levels, and nationally, the industry has cut 10,000 jobs between June and August 2021, data shows federal.

Each empty hexagon on the Children’s Playhouse bulletin board represents a missing worker. The daycare is operating below capacity because it cannot find enough workers. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

A recent survey of 1,163 daycares in Pennsylvania quantified the distress. Statewide, 92% of child care respondents were understaffed, according to Start Strong PA, a group that lobbies for funding for child care. Across the Commonwealth, more than 25,000 children are on their waiting lists.

“Hiring is our top priority right now,” said Jen Segelken, vice president of youth development at the YMCA of Greater Philadelphia.

Before the pandemic, Greater Philadelphia Y had about 950 children enrolled in its early childhood centers. Today it has 610. To be fully staffed and clear waiting lists would require 40 to 50 hires, Segelken said.

“It’s like pulling needles out of a haystack,” said Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez, executive director of Children’s Playhouse, which operates two early learning centers in South Philadelphia.

She started recruiting in June for the fall school year. Still, she has five class staff left: three infant teachers, a head teacher, and an assistant teacher. Their waiting list is around 20 children and several classrooms are closed due to understaffing. Next month, Alvarado-Rodriguez demands that all employees be vaccinated. Some have already been vaccinated so they can work with the Philadelphia School District, but she fears the tenure may cause a further exodus of staff.

The health risks associated with the pandemic in the sector, however, have been real. Child care workers who remain at work put themselves and their families at risk.

The former director of Children’s Playhouse, for example, caught COVID-19 at work and passed it on to her father, who lived with her. He then died of the virus.

“It became a very traumatic experience… She couldn’t bounce back” and eventually moved on, said Alvarado-Rodriguez, who took over as manager.


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