Jackie Kirby, standing in the lobby of the Learning Ladder Academy in Wyomissing on Monday morning, couldn’t have been more enthusiastic with her praise.
The staff at the daycare has been incredible during the nearly two years she has sent her children there, she told state Sen. Judy Schwank, who had stopped by the center for a visit.
They helped Levi, now 4, overcome the difficulties he was having with his speech. Two-year-old Ezra has seen great improvements in the issues he was having with his behavior.
Both boys love the center, Kirby said.
“Levi cried every day when I dropped him off for the first three weeks, now he cries when I pick him up to go home,” she said.
Sometimes the boys ask her if they can go to school on a Saturday and she has to tell them no, Kirby said.
“They say, ‘Are you sure?’ she laughed.
And the center has been incredibly accommodating with her schedule, the single mother said. Her job as a home nurse means she sometimes has to pick up the boys at 3pm and other times at 5pm – and Learning Ladder has made that possible.
“I couldn’t be the nurse that I am without the centre,” she says.
But Kirby knows that not everyone is as lucky as her. It can be difficult to find quality child care, especially as centers like Learning Ladder face staffing shortages.
Schwank is fully aware of the situation.
“I wish every parent could have the same experience,” she said.
That’s why the Ruscombmanor Township Democrat visited the center on Monday. In addition to taking the time to read a story to a small group of captivated children, she spoke to the owners, staff and parents of the centers about the challenges they face.
And it turns out the challenges are serious.
Learning Ladder serves 111 children but could serve many more, director Steven Goodhart told Schwank.
The center is authorized to accommodate up to 179 children. But due to the lack of staff, families find themselves facing waiting lists when they try to register for care.
“Affording teachers is our biggest challenge,” he said.
The child care industry, like so many other sectors, is grappling with an ongoing labor shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, Goodhart said. And centers like Learning Ladder just don’t have enough money to attract applicants.
Michelle Wunder, an ambassador for the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said the average starting salary for a child care job in the state is just under $11 an hour.
“It’s just the saddest thing,” she said.
With these types of salaries, job seekers are often uninterested in the complex and difficult task of providing child care. That’s led to a widespread shortage across Pennsylvania, Wunder said.
A survey of 994 centers across the state showed that 91% have staffing shortages, with a total of just under 7,000 vacancies.
In Berks County, Wunder said, 41 centers responded to the survey. Of these, 95% said they had staff shortages, with a total of 270 positions open.
Both in the state and in Berks, the main reason given for the difficulty in finding candidates is low salaries and the lack of benefits.
Learning Ladder pays slightly more than the state average, but still struggles to find staff. Goodhart said the center has had to raise salaries to stay competitive, a move that has increased the center’s annual payroll by about $320,000 from what it was before the pandemic.
Amy Templin, director of Learning Ladder, said the regulations child care centers face also make it difficult to hire. For example, prospective employees must provide four separate background clearances. The process can take two to three weeks, and many applicants are unwilling to wait that long.
“They can go to Walmart, they can go to Target, and they can start the next day,” she said.
Trying to keep salaries competitive has made the already financially challenging world of child care even more difficult, Goodhart said.
Goodhart said centers that provide infant care, like Learning Ladder, run those programs with a deficit. And securing school supplies has become more difficult and more expensive.
And if a center wants to offer a high-quality program for children—Learning Ladder has the highest four-star rating from the Keystone Stars program in the state—that also comes with additional costs.
“It’s expensive to operate at this level,” Goodhart said.
Goodhart said Learning Ladder tried to find ways to deal with financial shortfalls.
They had to get rid of their meals program, which means parents have to prepare meals for their children. Credit card payment processing fees are passed on to parents. And the weekly tuition has been increased by $10.
Federal COVID stimulus money has helped, Goodhart said. But it is not a permanent solution.
If nothing changes, Goodhart said, Learning Ladder will likely have to implement significant tuition increases in the fall.
Kirby said she understands the link in which Learning Ladder is.
“I’m already paying over half my paycheck for my two kids, and I’m ready to say it,” she said. “I’m not excited for fall, but I’m not going anywhere.”
A crying need
The challenges faced by child care centers create challenges for parents seeking their services.
Jessica Allred said she started looking for daycare when she was seven or eight months pregnant, looking in February to enroll her newborn in September. Luckily, she was able to find a place at Learning Ladder for her son, Arthur.
Totally isolated due to the COVID pandemic, Arthur needed socializing. He got it at Learning Ladder.
“We were looking for a place that was welcoming, that felt like family,” she said. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
But, Allred said, she knows not everyone was as lucky as her family.
“We want quality care opportunities for everyone,” she said.
Kirby said much the same thing, telling Schwank that she had two co-workers who were desperate for daycare.
“They’re both on the waiting list here,” she said. “They ask me about it all the time.”
They are far from alone.
Wunder said that due to staffing shortages across the state, about 32,400 children are on waiting lists for daycare, including about 1,400 in Berks.
Will the state take action?
Schwank said it’s clear child care centers need more help from the state, and she has an idea of how that should be done.
“We need to subsidize child care the same way we do public education,” she said. “Something has to be different, not just relying on the stimulus money that’s coming in.”
Schwank said she’s been pushing for direct state subsidies for child care when discussing the state budget, which must be passed by the end of June. She said now was a good time to look into the idea because the state is brimming with money from federal COVID relief programs.
The state provides basic education grants to public school districts based on their student population and factors such as the number of economically disadvantaged students.
Wunder said his organization is asking the state to invest $115 million as a wage supplement for child care workers, which would allow child care centers to increase the rates they pay staff. $2 an hour.