Pam Lusk started running a family child care home in Norwich 26 years ago, after her son was born. With a degree in child development from Connecticut College, she had been working at a daycare center until they told her that she couldn’t bring her son with her to work.
“So I was dropping him off with a daycare provider and paying for his daycare and whatnot, and then I couldn’t spend any time with him. And I was spending all day long with other people’s kids. So I decided to make the move to try in my home,” she said.
Lusk is a family child care provider — a person who cares for infants, toddlers and preschoolers in their private homes while parents are at work. Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye has said that she sees these private homes as a critical solution for solving the child care shortage in Eastern Connecticut, which Bye referred to in a presentation before the legislature in February as “one of the biggest child care deserts” in the state.
A recent McKinsey study listed Norwich as having the 7th greatest need for child care in the state of Connecticut, with a lack of 2,100 infant and toddler seats, according to Bye. Groton and New London both made the top 20.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that demand in the region was being driven by companies like General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton and the casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Osten said that employees of Electric Boat already had 2,500 children under the age of five.
“We know that we’re going to see younger workers coming in, and with younger workers comes families,” Osten said during the February meeting.
Osten told CT Examiner that the lack of child care posed a serious problem for families and for jobs in the region.
“If you don’t have child care, how do you get back to work?” said Osten.
Electric Boat’s interim director of communications, Lynn Hendy, said in an emailed statement that affordable child care is one of the company’s concerns as it tries to onboard new workers. She said the company was working with the Governor’s Workforce Council to address child care affordability and other issues.
“EB does support a regional approach to providing more accessible and affordable child care as our employees reside in many towns in CT; therefore, the best solution is to provide access closer to their residence,” Hendy said.
Osten said that the two casinos had 1,000 jobs that needed to be filled, and Hendy said that Electric Boat is planning to hire over 3,000 workers this year.
In a press conference on Wednesday, State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, pointed out that the lack of child care affects women in particular.
“This industry really hits women very dramatically. Half of the women who were formerly employed are now unemployed because of the lack of the appropriate child care,” said McCarty.
Bye told CT Examiner that family child care homes are an ideal solution for the Eastern Connecticut region because of the odd hours that people work. She said the office recently established a network of child care providers in the Norwich area, and that she is working on extending a pandemic-era rule that will allow caregivers to increase the number of children they care for — from six to nine — as long as they add an additional staff member.
“That would more than double the availability of infant-toddler care, which is really where the problem is,” said Bye.
McCarty told CT Examiner she had asked Bye to help create a comprehensive plan for how to deal with the child care shortage.
“The commissioner’s been very good about looking at licensure and flexibility and being creative to try to find the best means,” said McCarty.
But Osten expressed frustration with what she considered the slow progress being made.
“[The commissioner] has been talking about family child care centers being the answer for a couple of years now, but there has been no movement on establishing them or helping them, or making sure that they’re viable,” said Osten. “That still has to be done.”
“I’m not in it to make a killing”
Child care, according to Bye, is the second largest expense for families after housing. She said that 64 percent of parents do not have access to affordable child care.
But affordable child care across the state remains scarce. The Office of Early Childhood estimates a shortage of 50,000 infant and toddler seats across all of Connecticut.
Erica Phillips, president of the nonprofit All Our Kin, which supports family child care educators, said the reason is a combination of low wages for caregivers and state subsidies that aren’t robust enough to cover the cost for low-income families. The weekly reimbursement rates for the state child care subsidy program, known as Care4Kids, are between $196 and $259 for full time care of infants and toddlers in child care homes in the Eastern part of the state.
“We know that child care is expensive for many families, and yet what they are paying does not cover the true cost of child care. So providers and assistant teachers make very low wages, and low compensation is holding back efforts to build supply because no one wants to work for minimum wage,” said Phillips.
Bye said that part of the problem in the rural areas of Eastern Connecticut is that child care providers are reluctant to operate in a region where people cannot afford to pay.
“Child care isn’t like public schools. Most child care are private businesses,” said Bye. “And those private businesses need enough people to stay in business and they need enough people who can pay what it costs to stay in business.”
Lusk said that making enough money to get by is her biggest challenge. She recently decided to increase her rates from $180 to $200 per week, her first increase in ten years.
“I’m not in it to make a killing. I’m in it to make enough to pay my bills, because I try to keep it affordable for the parents,” said Lusk.
One of the goals of the Norwich-area network of providers, which started a year and a half ago, is to help child care providers with their business skills and financial management through training sessions, according to Rebecca Murray, the network’s coordinator. The network includes 40 providers from the towns of Norwich, Uncasville, Lisbon and Pawcatuck, and Griswold.
Murray said many of the women she works with hadn’t considered the idea of increasing their rates, or were afraid that if they did, the families might take their children somewhere else.
Bye said the network is a way of addressing the isolation that many child care providers operate in — a condition that Phillips said is one of the reasons people are reluctant to become family child care providers.
Besides financial management, the network also runs information sessions about topics from licensing to the importance of reading with children to stress reduction for caregivers. Its Facebook page features posts about fun holiday crafts.
Requiring providers to hire an additional staff member if they want to take more than six children, Bye said, will also help with the isolation. But trying to pay that person presents its own challenge.
“If we say you have to add another staff member to take in more infants and toddlers, you can’t start paying that staff member until you have the kids — it’s sort of a catch-22,” said Bye.
“A really important job”
With six children between the ages of 11 months and five years, Lusk fills the weekdays with circle times — complete with songs and finger puppets — craft projects and plenty of time for free play. She works from seven until four, when the parents, who are all teachers at Norwich Free Academy, are able to come and pick up their children.
Phillips said that these family child care homes actually became more appealing during the pandemic. These small homes, she said, were more likely to stay open when larger child care centers closed their doors.
“They were caring for the children of essential workers, doctors, delivery workers,” she said.
Phillps said that, despite being private homes rather than larger centers, these smaller child cares can offer high-quality programs. She said that the intimate environment allows children to bond with the caregiver, which is important for the child’s development.
“It’s really important to have a caregiver who is developing a strong attachment with the child, so that children feel confident learning, exploring — and family child care is really strong at doing that,” said Phillips.
Yet these homes weren’t entirely immune to the effects of the pandemic. Lusk said she was only able to stay in business beyond the spring of 2020 because the women whose children she took care of all made the choice to continue to pay her even when everything was shut down.
And the pandemic is only another challenge in a long saga of struggle for family child care providers. Phillips said that over 1,000 family child care homes in Connecticut have closed in the last 15 years because of the low wages, lack of benefits and isolation.
Lusk said that she sees evidence of the child care shortage in Norwich in the regular phone calls she gets from people asking for child care. She said she currently has a waitlist of two infant seats — she said infant care is particularly scarce because of the amount of work an infant requires.
Organizations like All Our Kin are asking for an investment of $700 million this year into child care in the state, which Phillips said was part of a five-year plan. She said that ideally, part of this would be used to increase the eligibility of families for Care4Kids. A bill being considered in the state legislature would increase eligibility to 75 percent of the state median income and limit a family’s co-pays to seven percent of their income.
Bye said that the governor recently allocated $100 million in federal covid funds over two years to temporarily increase the eligibility for Care4Kids from 50 to 60 percent of the state median income — about $75,000 per year for a family of four — expand the eligibility to include parents who are in higher education and workforce training, and to give a bonus to child care providers who become accredited with the state.
However, Phillips said that the family income requirements are still not inclusive enough. Additionally, she said, parents who lose their jobs become ineligible for the program, meaning that they are not able to get subsidized child care while they look for work.
Timely payment can also be an issue — several providers told CT Examiner that they sometimes wait months after parents send their documentation in before they receive reimbursement. One provider in New London said she wasn’t always compensated for the care she gave the children while the applications were being approved.
Bye said the office approved completed applications within 30 to 45 days, although it could take longer if they needed further documentation. She said that caregivers do get compensated for care going back to the date on the application.
Bye said that her office had not requested additional child care funding in the governor’s budget this year because they had been waiting to hear about the state of the federal Build Back Better legislation that was being debated in the U.S. Congress. The bill would have provided an additional $170 million for child care in Connecticut this year.
Now that the federal legislation appears to be in limbo, Bye said that her office and the governor plan to work with the legislature on the budget for child care. But Osten said that the way that the budget was currently written, there is no additional funding to allocate. While the legislature’s budget committee, which Osten co-chairs, is considering some changes, nothing has been decided yet.
Legislators are also considering a bill that would, along with increases for eligibility of parents for subsidies, provide grants to providers to increase their salaries, create required minimum compensation guidelines for child care providers and establish a loan forgiveness program for caregivers with associate and bachelors degrees in early childhood education.
Lusk said that she believed the Office of Early Childhood also needs to make sure it has enough licensing providers and people to conduct inspections if it plans to increase the number of family child care homes. Bye said that her office was in the process of hiring five more licensing agents.
According to Lusk, the qualifications of the child care providers are critical — it’s not something that just anyone should be able to do.
“It’s an extremely important job,” said Lusk. “If you read all the statistics and whatnot, the kids, their mental capacity, all of that stuff is formulated in Birth to Three. And that’s when they’re in daycares like this.”
This story has been updated to clarify that All Our Kin supports family child care educators in particular