By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
Many of North Carolina’s childcare centers were struggling for labor before the pandemic – now those facilities are barely holding on.
According to a survey gathered by the North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council, 75 percent of child care centers are hiring teachers or teacher assistants at this time. This has caused current employees to overwork, and there are many instances of centers having to shut down due to a lack of staff.
Sheila Hoyle, executive director of Southwestern Child Development, is pleading for public awareness on this labor shortage.
“Even before the pandemic, child care had a very fragile financial foundation. It’s not a business that’s lucrative. Where it’s most difficult is we try to keep the cost of child care affordable for our parents, and at the same time that means that we aren’t able to pay good wages to people who work in child care centers,” said Hoyle.
She said that leaders across the state are trying everything to bridge the gap on this issue. She feels that the top priority should be paying teachers and teacher assistants as much as possible.
“I think compensation is the leading issue. Because most folks that talk about child care say that 70-80% of the budget is in staff labor. It’s a very labor-intensive industry. So, I think the need is not putting in fancy new playgrounds. We need good playgrounds in all places where children are in care, but I think what we need fundamentally is to increase compensation to the staff that works in the centers. That will just rachet up everything about the industry.”
Annette Shook, direct manager for Southwestern Child Development, is someone who has dealt with the labor crisis every day. Through 37 years of work in child care, she says this has been an unprecedented challenge.
“Even with Southwestern offering annual leave, sick leave, holiday pay, employee health insurance for free. Also reduced child care and we’re doing some free child care for staff of their own children if they put them in the center. We still aren’t able to attract people that want to work in child care,” said Shook.
She used Log Cabin Early Education and Preschool on the Qualla Boundary as an example of what she’s dealt with. Shook said that Log Cabin is a 5-Star rated facility. Star rated licenses are calculated and awarded by the NC Division of Child Development and Early Education. These ratings are based on staff education and a teacher-to-child ratio at the center.
“I’ve set up interviews for people, and either they don’t show up for the interview or they show up and they decide they don’t want to work. Or they came and worked three or four days and then they decided they didn’t want to work,” said Shook.
Log Cabin currently has four full-time staff that take care of 13 children. She said that both those numbers need to increase, but to maintain high-quality care and safety she needs more staff.
“We’re starting with high school students to let them know about jobs in child care. But especially at the community college level. People that are in the early childhood program,” said Shook.
“We can take people who are just high school graduates. What we ask is if they would be willing to take some online classes, especially child care credentials. It’s offered through the community college, and we pay for these classes. Even give them time off through the TEACH program.”
She said that they are desperately trying to increase wages at Log Cabin, but that they are currently offering $11 to $15 an hour for lead teachers. Teacher assistants start at $10 an hour. Shook also says that the ability to pay for education is the best asset they have right now. Someone who takes a job in one of her facilities can have their child care education fees covered by the center.
“We can’t compete right now with the wages that fast-food and other places are paying. But we have great benefits. And it’s Monday through Friday work, so I would think that would be appealing to people. We work Monday through Friday, no nights, no weekends,” said Shook.
These amenities are not universal in child care, however. Monica Woodard, director of Lots-a-tots in Bryson City, said they can only offer holiday leave and paid vacation. With fewer benefits comes fewer access to funds.
“It all depends on education and experience. If they have no education, no nothing, we start out at 8.50. We have to provide classes and training. I always tell them, when you get training or get your certifications, you get a raise. I have a girl right now that’s taking early childhood at Southwestern, and every semester when she passes her classes she gets a raise. Every semester until she gets her degree finished.”
Woodard said that she would love to get wages up to $15 an hour like many of the fast-food restaurants in the area, but her highest paid employee makes just $12.50 an hour.
“It’s a very demanding job. It’s money. We can’t afford to pay a teacher with a degree what they deserve. Once they get their degree, they can go to the public school system.”
Woodard said that Lots-a-tots has been attempting to hire for six months. She shared a similar story to the one offered by Shook. Applications are extremely rare, and the ones they have received have brought empty promises of arrival. She said she’s been trying to understand how to address this attitude towards child care.
“I don’t have a clue. I’ve asked a couple of people and they’ve said, ‘we’re still drawing unemployment.’ And they can draw as much in unemployment sitting at home as they do working. So, they don’t want to apply for a job,” said Woodard.
This means less staff and more work for those that are already there. She said that most of her staff is having to work 50-hour weeks to keep the facility running every day. Lots-a-tots are a three-star center and have just six staff members that take care of 46 children.
“I’m personally in a classroom all day long, and I’m the director. I’m having to do my office work on the weekends and at night because I don’t have the staff,” said Woodard.
Despite the stress of their labor shortage, Woodard said that she is still happy with the job she does. She hopes that the parents of the community can understand and sympathize with the struggle they are currently going through. Primarily, she just wants to find some more individuals with a passion for helping children.
“It is a rewarding field to work in. Because you get to see kids grow up … I’ve had kids from the time they were infants until they went to kindergarten. You make friendships with parents, and you make a bond with the kids,” said Woodard.
She said that they are looking at different grants to help them through this challenging period. That is something that Sheila Hoyle is looking to help with. She said that finding funding is extremely important right now, but also that a structural change will be needed to help permanently.
“I’m one of those people that believes public will has to change before we change anything. The part of public will that has to change is that we have to recognize that the education of young children needs to be an educational service. In this country, we pay for educational services,” said Hoyle.
She said that these centers are a valuable resource for families, but also the entire community.
“Child care is the workforce behind the workforce. Young families can’t go to work if they have young children, and they can’t find child care for them,” said Hoyle.
“It is a very exciting time in child care. Because during the pandemic we really understood that child care centers provide educational value and economic value. Because we’re an educator for young children, but we’re also the economic stability for parents that want to work.”