Child Care-less No More?

Disruptions in child care services annually result in $762 million in losses for Louisiana businesses and $1.3 billion for the state economy and have proven to be especially devastating for working mothers. So, what are we doing about it?

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Pandemic-era life has been a grind for parents of young children, especially those juggling career demands with 24/7 caregiving. Little ones accustomed to the routine of nursery school or day care were forced to adjust to new situations while moms and dads struggled to make it through the workdays (and nights) while somehow keeping all the plates spinning.

But the challenges related to unpredictable child care coverage don’t stop at home. On the other side of the equation, the country’s child care industry has been pummeled by the instability of repeated closings and reopenings, social distancing, staffing shortages, and risks of caring for a population of unmasked, unvaccinated children — and their exhausted parents.
“Child care is the invisible backbone of America’s economy,” said Jen Roberts, CEO of child advocacy organization Agenda for Children. “There is nothing like a disruption to that for folks to really realize the significance of it.”

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In New Orleans, the child care sector, which operated on narrow margins even prior to the pandemic, faces economic and employment challenges seen nationwide. Federal COVID-19 dollars have brought some relief, but child care providers are still seeking a longer-term funding model to grow their beleaguered workforce and serve more children, particularly infants and toddlers.

The good news? The dire care situation of the past two years highlighted the critical role of early education in keeping the economy running. That urgency, plus the growing body of research showing that high quality early education helps produce children more likely to read on grade level, attend college, and have better lifelong health and financial outcomes, has fostered exciting innovation in New Orleans to increase quality and access for kids.

“The list is endless,” said Libbie Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy institute for Children (LPIC). “Education can be the great equalizer and can also help families get back to school and work. The time is now.”

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The High Costs of Care
Child care can be a huge financial burden. According to the LPIC, for a low-income single mother with an infant, the average cost of care ($7,500 per year) represents 44 % of her likely income. For a low-income couple with two young children, the share of income spent on child care reaches a staggering 58%.

But it’s not just low-income families that struggle. Even using median income data, an Orleans Parish household with two small children is likely to direct roughly 31% of its income to child care (based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2020 Louisiana Child Care Market Rate Survey).

On the provider side, child care centers felt the pinch of pandemic-related closures. A fall 2021 survey of child care providers conducted by LPIC found centers each reported around $300,000 in losses since March 2020. Margins were reduced further as centers operated with lower teacher-child ratios and higher costs for cleaning materials and other virus-mitigation measures.

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Child care breakdowns take a far-reaching toll on the broader economy as well. LPIC research puts the annual cost of parental absenteeism, turnover, and other expenses related to child care disruption at $762 million for Louisiana businesses and $1.3 billion for the state economy.

Sonnier believes that quantifying those costs has helped private and public sector leaders appreciate the value of early childhood education and care.

“We’ve worked really hard to make this an economic issue… a workforce issue, not just of tomorrow, but today,” said Sonnier. “If moms, dads and caregivers can’t go to school, go to work, or look for work, our economy is not going to take off the way it needs to.”


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Desperately Seeking Staff
Early childhood education faces a familiar set of post-COVID-19 employment issues.

Child care workers have historically received low pay. Louisiana’s average wage for workers in this sector in 2019 was $9.77 per hour according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 49th lowest wage in the country (Mississippi was 50th). In an effort to attract and retain staff, providers have increased wages – mainly through government relief funding – but still lack longer-term solutions.

Rochelle Wilcox is CEO and owner of Wilcox Academy of Early Learning, which operates three centers in New Orleans. She blames low wages and unstable funding for a workforce turnover rate that went from an already challenging 40% to more than 55% during the pandemic.

Wilcox has increased wages and offered bonuses, hazard pay, 401k matching, sick time and vacation time.

“And they deserve it,” she said. “We want to go higher… The goal is that we want to be able to retain staff, not just bring staff on. We want to make sure they are treated as the professionals that they are.”

Wilcox believes one answer lies in elevating the profession in the eyes of current and potential staff: “We have teachers. We don’t have child care workers. They are doing intentional learning, lesson planning, engaging with young learners. We are intentional about descriptions and words we use with this profession because… we have to respect what these teachers are doing… People still see it as ‘babysitting’ or ‘women’s work’ because there’s not a lot of money in it… but we have to show people this career is worth it.”

Even with the incentives, Wilcox said the hiring situation remains a struggle. With a waitlist of more than 150 children, she is unable to open additional classrooms without the staff to manage them.

The JCC Nursery School and Pre-K Program also faces a long waitlist and shortage of staff. According to JCC Executive Director Leslie Fischman, some teachers are leaving for higher-paying jobs in the city’s public schools, but others are just burned out.

“I think COVID has worn people down, particularly teachers of all ages because they are really on the front end of all this,” said Fischman. “They were teaching kids who weren’t vaccinated… so they are like first-responders in my opinion. But they are so important and so needed… because they make such a difference in a child’s life.”

Areas of Need
The greatest area of unmet demand in New Orleans (and across the country) is infant and toddler care. Classrooms for those age groups are staff-intensive and costly to run, so many providers simply can’t make the math work.

Angelique Belisle is the school director for Educare New Orleans, part of a nationwide network of 25 schools that combine early education with family engagement programs in areas like financial literacy and health and mindfulness. Her center’s funded enrollment is 168 children, but current enrollment is 141, which Belisle attributes to the teacher shortage, as well as some parents not yet feeling comfortable returning their children to school. Like others, Educare families’ greatest demand is for infant/toddler spots.

“We are hopeful that with the new school year, we can bring on more staff members,” said Belisle, “but we are now at a stalemate with hiring… and can’t open a classroom.”

Many parents are also seeking care hours beyond the standard weekday 9-to-5 window — a difficult, and expensive, wish for providers to fulfill. “I’m sure parents would like as many hours as a child care center could give them,” said Fischman. “The problem we have is staffing and keeping our teachers fresh. It’s a long day, and it’s not easy. And you have to think about it – kids here are sometimes with us more waking hours than they’re with their parents.”

“Women’s” Work
Child care disruptions have taken an outsize toll on the workforce participation of mothers with young children. According to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, women with children under age 6 comprised 10% of the labor force in the United States in February 2020, but nearly a quarter of the job losses during the period from February to May 2021. Multiple surveys of parents during the pandemic also found mothers reporting a greater share of child care responsibility or concern than fathers.

According to Belisle, many of Educare’s parents are single mothers, so child care barriers have clear impacts.

“When mom does not have somewhere for her little ones to go or does not have a center she can afford to send her child to, it definitely affects her ability to go to work or to school… Mom is truly the one affected by what’s happening now.”

On the plus side, the pandemic drew attention to the undervalued work of women in the child care field. As Jen Roberts says, “There has been increasing recognition for the women in particular who educate young children during the earliest years and how hard those jobs really are… and how important they are to our economy and to people’s lifestyles.”

The challenge lies in translating that appreciation into sustainable wage and workforce growth.


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Signs of Progress
Despite the hardships of the last two years, New Orleans is gathering momentum on the early childhood front.

In 2017, the city was among a small number of municipalities in the country to begin dedicating local funding to the City Seats program, which offers access to free, high-quality early childhood care. That program started out serving about 50 children; it now serves nearly 400 and draws matching funds from the state.

In 2018, Agenda for Children created the Early Childhood Opportunity (ECHO) Fund, which provides microgrants and grants (with plans for loans in the works) to support early learning programs. With support from foundations, individuals, state funding and additional partners, funds can be used for teacher pay raises, professional development, or other early learning needs. The ECHO Fund has given more than $2 million to over 200 organizations in New Orleans to date and has created special programs for areas of targeted need, like Hurricane Ida relief.

The School Readiness Tax Credit program allows businesses with a Louisiana tax ID to contribute up to $5,000 to Child Care Resource and Referral agencies (including Agenda for Children, which works on behalf of 13 South Louisiana parishes and directs contributions to the ECHO Fund) as a fully refundable tax credit.

The most recent development was the April 30 ballot proposal in Orleans Parish to raise a millage dedicated to expanding early childhood access and wraparound services, with funding committed for 20 years. At press time, the result of the ‘Yes for NOLA Kids’ proposal was not yet determined. If passed, the funding would increase families’ access to quality care and allow child care center operators to expand their operations and provide a stable funding source for teacher pay raises, classroom resources, and more.

Whatever of the outcome of the vote, Jen Roberts said she is proud of the city’s progress on behalf of its children.

“This is a pretty dramatic first time in the country that a city is trying to focus specifically on infant and toddler care, so that in and of itself will yield a lot of national attention,” she said. “The innovation that New Orleans has put forth and the stake in the ground says we really care about our youngest citizens.”


Ochsner Takes Care Onsite

Some organizations are going to great lengths to meet employees’ child care needs. Ochsner Health started exploring the possibility of offering onsite child care in 2015.

“It came up every year in the employee engagement survey, in open forums,” said Melissa Love, vice president of Professional Staff Services and the Office of Professional Well-being for Ochsner Health. “After an extensive research and planning process, Ochsner opted to build an early learning center from the ground up near their main campus on Jefferson Highway. They selected an outside company, Bright Horizons, to operate the center.

The Ochsner Early Learning Center opened in June 2021, with capacity for 210 children (ages 6 weeks to 5 years). The center also provides backup care for employees’ children and elderly family members. Operating hours (6 a.m. – 8 p.m.) are designed to support parents working 12-hour shifts, which are common within the organization. “That is something that was very important to us,” said Love.

Rates are intentionally kept at or just below market competitive, and scholarships are available to qualifying applicants.

“We have actually invested over $400,000 in scholarships for the families that are currently enrolled,” said Love. “We wanted all of our employees to be able to consider it as an option.”



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