(The Center Square) – Child care workers and advocates warned lawmakers that Pennsylvania faces a major shortage of workers and a lack of funding during a Wednesday committee hearing. 

Workers are leaving for better-paying and less-stressful jobs at grocery stores and in the fast-food business, and hundreds of child care options have disappeared since the pandemic.

“As families return to work, we need to make sure that child care is available for those families and that that child care is affordable,” said Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia.

Child care providers didn’t mince words.

“Be very sure that without intervention … the gap between high-quality programming for young children will widen and continue to widen more and more,” said Leslie Spina, executive director of Kinder Academy in Philadelphia.

Staffing shortages, pay parity, challenging behaviors in the classroom, and insurance problems have been major issues, she said.

“One thing is clear: The pipeline for our future has collapsed,” Spina said. “An influx of cash is not the solution – it’s a great start … but it’s not the only thing we need.”

Retaining workers has been difficult, and not just teachers. Finding administrators and bus drivers have been ongoing problems as well. When workers are found, barriers to hiring delays their start dates thanks to a “cumbersome onboarding process that’s required by the state,” Spina said.

“The process is taking us four to six weeks, sometimes eight weeks to get someone on board,” Spina said.

Low pay, even compared to other teachers, is demoralizing, she argued. 

“We should be ashamed of ourselves in this state,” Spina said.

The low pay doesn’t keep child care facilities easy to run, either.

“The pay for child care workers is low, yet it makes up 60 percent to 80 percent of a program’s budget,” said Dianne Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

Since Covid-19 hit, almost 2,000 child care centers closed permanently across Pennsylvania, she noted. Though others have opened and the net loss has been about 600 centers, Barber said it wasn’t clear that new centers were in the same areas as closed ones.

Capacity, however, is less of a problem than staffing shortages. Jen Byrne, who owns Spring Rose Childcare in Berks County, has a wait list of 108 children, but can’t accept more due to hiring issues. Even before the pandemic, she had a waiting list, but it’s grown in recent years.

“Our waiting pool would be significantly larger if I continue to allow families to apply,” Byrne said. “We cannot hire qualified staff.”

The problem isn’t only a lack of workers applying, however. Rules and regulations disqualify people who have the ability to care for children.

“Regulations regarding educational qualifications for group and assisted group supervisors lack common sense,” Byrne said. “Just because a person has a degree in education does not make them qualified to run an infant or toddler classroom … most of my best employees are just moms.”

However, mothers get classified as aides if they lack the educational credentials.

To fix that, Byrne proposed allowing family experience to count toward child care experience. “Allow child care administration to classify employees based off a person’s skill level, and not an education level,” she said.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers spoke of a shared commitment to improving child care in Pennsylvania.

“We want to ensure access to quality child care,” said Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Reading. “Our children deserve the opportunity to learn in an environment that keeps them safe and promotes their health and development.” 

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

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