Sept 1 (Reuters) - Rochelle Wilcox, the owner of three childcare centers in New Orleans, receives 10 to 15 phone calls nearly every day for each school from parents asking if there is space for their children.
But Wilcox has to turn them away. While her enrollment is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, she doesn't have the staff to take on more students.
"I have to say that we’re full," said Wilcox, who capped the wait list for the three schools at 140 children, compared to the more typical range of 45 to 60. She estimates the schools could accept nearly 40 more children if she could hire 10 more staffers.
Childcare centers across the country are struggling to find enough qualified educators to be fully staffed for back-to-school season, an obstacle that has some schools reducing planned enrollment and cutting back hours. Owners of childcare centers say more workers are quitting and fewer people than usual are applying for open positions.
The staffing crunch is further limiting childcare options for parents eager to get back to work. It also creates more hurdles for working mothers, who were disproportionately pushed out of the labor market when schools went virtual and childcare centers closed because of the pandemic.
Without reliable childcare, it will become more difficult for those parents to return to steady work schedules, economists say, potentially slowing a labor market recovery that many had hoped would get a jolt as schools reopened this fall and which becomes even more critical as enhanced jobless benefits expire in September.
Research released on Wednesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that women with children under age 6 made up 10% of the workforce before the pandemic but accounted for 22% of the jobs lost during the crisis. The ability to find quality childcare is "likely to be a determining factor for employment" for women with young children, Atlanta Fed researcher M. Melinda Pitts wrote in the report.
Four out of five early childhood educators working at childcare centers said they were understaffed in late June and early July, according to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. More than one in three respondents said they were thinking about leaving or shutting down their centers this year.
Recruiting childcare workers has always been difficult because wages are typically low - workers earn a median of $12 an hour according to the Labor Department - and the work is demanding. But those challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, which put workers' health at risk and, with many quitting, created greater responsibilities for those who remained on the job.
The renewed focus on the workforce is leading to a national conversation about early childhood educators and what needs to change to provide them with more opportunities and reduce turnover.
"I think what we’re going through right now is a revaluing of care work and understanding that care work is the work that makes all other work possible," said Mara Bolis, associate director of women's economic rights for Oxfam America.
Employment of child daycare workers plunged by 36% at the start of the pandemic after many centers shut down, greater than the roughly 15% drop in employment seen in the U.S. labor market overall, according to Labor Department data. Childcare employment was still down 11% from pre-pandemic levels as of July, compared to a 4% shortfall for the labor market overall.
Some workers leaving the industry now say they are worried about the health risks or are burning out after being asked to work longer hours with less support. Some people are moving into more lucrative roles as nannies, which came into higher demand during the pandemic with daycare centers shuttering and as more families opted to keep their children at home.
Amanda Chugg worked through the early part of the pandemic at a childcare center based in a hospital campus in Portland, Oregon. But she left in May of 2020 because too many of her colleagues were showing up to work sick and she was concerned about exposing her roommate, who is immunocompromised, to COVID-19.
"Having people coming to work sick is not uncommon in childcare," said Chugg, 26, who now works as a nanny taking care of two children, ages four and six. "But with the onset of COVID it got to a place where it was untenable for me."
Jordan Potts, 21, realized it was time for a change after being asked to work multiple 12-hour shifts because the center she worked at in north Texas was short-staffed. Many of the teachers hired to help would leave after a week or two.
"It kind of clicked, the burnout," said Potts, who quit in August after about three years in the industry. Instead of caring for a room of about 10 one-year olds, Potts is now working as a full-time nanny caring for a five-month old baby. While her pay is about the same, her responsibilities as a nanny are more manageable, said Potts, who will start college in January and wants to be an elementary school teacher.
Owners of childcare centers say they want to boost wages to retain more workers. But they argue they are limited in terms of how much more they can offer before they have to start raising tuition - putting more pressure on families already struggling to afford childcare.
That tension is not new, but some childcare center owners feel they are competing more intensely with retailers, restaurants and other businesses that are better able to increase pay or sweeten benefits to attract more workers during the pandemic.
Wilcox, the owner of the childcare centers in New Orleans, increased hourly wages for all of her staff this spring, going from a range of $10 to $13 per hour to a range of $12 to $16. But she still hasn't been able to fill all of her openings.
In addition to better wages, early childhood educators say they need more opportunity for growth within the field, support from staff and broader access to health insurance, sick time and other benefits.
Megan Ahern initially envisioned she would spend her evenings coming up with creative lesson plans when she started teaching pre-Kindergarten full-time in Eugene, Oregon, in September of 2020.
But after struggling to afford groceries on her teacher paycheck alone, the 25-year-old started delivering food through Uber Eats after school. She worked close to 12 hours a day between the two jobs.
Ahern, who quit the school at the end of August, said she didn't have the resources needed for her classroom, which included some children with special needs. Some of the children would hit, bite or pee on her. She was so overwhelmed she often found herself shedding tears during her 30-minute lunch breaks.
Ahern's pay was increased to $17 an hour from $13 an hour in early August, but it wasn't enough to change her mind. "Ideally I’ll be able to come back to working with kids at some point," said Ahern, who plans to keep delivering food until she finds another job. "But I just need a break."
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