As Demand for Childcare Grows, Connecticut Struggles to Balance Affordability, Competitive Pay for Workers

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COVID “ruined everything,” said Beth Scarpati, owner of the Academy of Early Learning in Cheshire. “These young kids, they do not want to work. They want a lot of money, but the industry doesn’t warrant high pay,” said Scarpati. “I could 100 percent pay my staff a lot more money, but that cost is on to the parents. And now it’s a lot — you’re asking parents to pay $400 a week for daycare.” 

Scarpati is hardly the only childcare provider to express such concerns. Despite millions of dollars in state and federal funds designed to shore up the childcare sector during and after the pandemic, business owners who spoke to CT Examiner say they are in a bind — with substantial numbers of parents looking for childcare, but not enough staff to accommodate them, and no obvious way to attract more workers at wages that the businesses – or parents – can afford.

Staffing, wage and affordability problems didn’t begin with COVID, childcare wages have long  been relatively low, hovering around the state minimum wage. But the difference now is that companies like McDonalds, Stop and Shop and Target are competing and paying higher wages that childcare providers can easily afford.

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“I’m in New Haven, in Yale’s backyard,” said Georgia Goldburn, executive director for Hope Child Development Center. “They’re offering $25 an hour for people who are working in the cafeteria or who are janitors. The average childcare rate is about 14 to $15 an hour.”

Goldburn said that her center has classrooms that are either closed or not fully staffed. She said they can’t even take siblings of children who are already enrolled in their center. 

Statistics from the State Department of Labor place the median wage for childcare providers at $14.97 per hour, with the average entry level hourly slightly lower. 

Childcare providers say that another challenge is Connecticut’s increasing minimum wage, which is scheduled to reach $15 an hour next July. Having to increase pay for their employees forces the businesses to raise the cost for parents — a situation that most providers want to avoid, especially with the current inflation. 

“We’re not making ends meet and we’re not even close to making ends meet,” said Janet Settle, who owns Little House in the Country Childcare in Ellington. “Now that the minimum wage is so high, in order for programs like ours to continue to make ends meet, we’re going to need continuous, consistent support – that still allows parents choice.”

“A massive exodus”

An even more insurmountable problem, childcare providers say, has been hiring workers with childcare degrees, which can give workers skills that improve the program’s quality.  

At a Oct. 12 meeting of the state task force on Early Childhood Workforce Development, Steve Marcelynas, director of the Office of Transfer and Articulation for the Connecticut State College and University system, said that last year,  31 students who studied early childhood education at the state’s 12 community colleges had gone on to four-year colleges – many likely abandoning the field.

And of the people who do obtain degrees, Goldburn said, many either go to work in the public schools, or move out of the childcare industry altogether. 

“We may be able to find some people who are interested in working in childcare, but once they get a certain level of qualification, they do not stay,” said Goldburn. “And so what’s ending up happening is we are having a massive exodus. Our replacement rate is not sufficient enough to cover the folks who are leaving.” 

Karen Lott, executive director of the Women’s League Child Development Center in Hartford, said at a roundtable discussion in New Haven on Monday that her center has three of its 17 classrooms shut down for lack of staffing. Lott said that while there were a lot of people interested in entering the early childcare field, most lacked the background and credentials. The people who do go on to get bachelor’s degrees, she said, end up working in the public elementary schools, where they can get better pay. 

“That’s a challenge of really wanting your staff to have those high credentials, but knowing that once they get them, they may actually leave and go on,” she said. 

Quiñones said 13 childcare business owners in her region recently have added certifications in child development, but that the lack of benefits was leading workers to reconsider whether to find employment in other areas. 

“We are concerned because they don’t have health insurance, for example. They don’t have retirement plans. So many of our providers choose — ‘Should I stay in this business or maybe move to another thing because I am not taking care of myself for the future?’” asked Quiñones. 

At the Oct. 12 meeting, Commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood Beth Bye said the state was putting funds into supporting workforce development for childcare, including an additional $6 million to fund eight workforce pipeline programs like the one at Hope for New Haven. The non-profit has partnered with the New Haven Public Schools on a program that allows high schoolers to graduate with credentials in Early Childhood Education and two years of training. 

Bye told CT Examiner that these programs offer opportunities for people to earn credentials in childcare, sometimes in partnership with the local community colleges. A program through West Haven Child Development Center, which also works with Hope for New Haven, offers classes in Early Childhood Education through Charter Oak. Some programs also pay workers for the hours they spend training in classrooms. 

“A lot of times we ask people to do job training and not get paid, and there’s just so many people that can’t do that,” said Bye. 

But Bye said she has also heard about colleges and universities counseling students studying education to avoid a focus on early childhood because of the salary expectations — something she said needed to change. 

“If we’re pushing all this effort into sending students into early childhood, and then they get there and they’re told, ‘Well, you’ll make more money in public school’ … I understand it, but I can’t imagine if I’d been counseled out of early childhood and child development as a student,” said Bye. 

“Sometimes I don’t even get paid myself” 

In March 2022, the Office of Early Childhood reported a shortage of 50,000 infant and toddler slots across the state. And according to data from the agency, about 660 childcare providers shut their doors between early 2020 and today  and 560 opened — a net difference of 100 fewer childcare businesses across the state. 

Slots for infants and toddlers have grown slightly — since March 2020, the number of slots for infants and toddlers has increased by about 1,330 at childcare centers, and the number of non-school age slots in family child care homes has increased by about 360. 

Bye has said in the past that she views the family childcare homes — women who care for up to six children out of their own houses or apartments — as essential to addressing the shortage of infant and toddler spaces, particularly in eastern Connecticut, where the shortage is severe. 

Family child care homes are able to take three more children — up to nine total — if they hire an additional staff member. But owners of family child care homes said that hiring another staff member would eat up almost all the profits they would make from taking in the additional children. 

“It’s going to take at least two of the new children just to pay that person. And with the way that I’ve been getting payments, sometimes I don’t even get paid myself,” said Fanny Rodriguez, who owns a family childcare home in Bristol. 

And some providers say they can’t expect a staff member to accept the pay levels that they themselves receive for the hours that they work. 

As of June 2022, childcare workers in the southwestern portion of Connecticut who care for an infant or toddler between 35 and 50 hours per week were receiving $270 per child per week through Care4Kids, the program that subsidizes childcare for parents who cannot afford to pay full price. That comes out to between $5.40 and $7.70 per hour for that child. Childcare providers in other parts of the state receive less than that amount. 

Rodriguez calculated that she earns about $5.58 per hour for her children that spend 8 hours per day with her, and $4.38 per hour for one child who stays with her nearly 12 hours per day. 

Parents are expected to pay a percentage of the cost of childcare based on their income levels. But providers told CT Examiner that they often don’t receive that money because the parents can’t pay. 

“I never get my family fee because the parents don’t have it. So I’m looking at it like this: Why should I lose $600 just because I can’t get the $150?” said Ernestine McGee, who owns the family childcare home M&M House of Love Daycare in New Haven. 

Furthermore, childcare providers told CT Examiner that delays in the state’s processing system means that the childcare workers wait months to receive payments as parents have their Care4Kids subsidies approved or renewed. 

Rodriguez said that in her last payment, she was supposed to receive between $5,000 and $6,000 for the six children she cares for — instead, she only received $1,800.  

Maria Reyes, a childcare provider in Waterbury, said the delays are one reason that the childcare industry is suffering from lack of staff. 

“One month is okay. But not two, three, four months — because then childcare is going to decrease and [workers] are going to go to work for McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts … who are paying $15 an hour,” Reyes said. 

The Office of Early Childhood told CT Examiner that they were experiencing a “significant spike” in demand for Care4Kids, which they attribute to more people reentering the workforce.  The agency has extended its hours and is looking to hire more staff. 

Elizabeth Quiñones, the child care initiative director at United Way of Western Connecticut, which represents about 90 childcare providers, said that this delay is common both when getting staff members licensed and receiving Care4Kids payments. 

“It’s unsustainable if you are just starting your business and … you have six kids, you have your program full, but four of those kids are applying for Care4Kids, and you don’t get the check,” she said. 

“COVID hesitancy” 

An additional consideration for these childcare providers is the number of parents who are looking for care. Many of the providers who spoke with CT Examiner say they aren’t having any problems finding children to fill their open slots. 

“I opened this center on June 6th and was immediately full. I spent $0 in advertising. It was all word of mouth,” said Scarpati, who is located in Cheshire. Scarpati owned another daycare center before COVID. “When parents found out that a new center was opening, I had an influx of parents. I already have a wait list. It’s crazy now.” 

“I have to turn a lot of [families] away,” added Shelta Wilson, who owns Baby Me Daycare in New Haven. “I don’t have the space, and I don’t have an assistant yet.” Wilson, who is part of the childcare union, said they were trying to convince the state to allow them to take additional children without having to bring on more staff.

Others, though, say the effects of COVID have made parents more likely to withdraw their children from childcare. McGee, in New Haven, said that she lost parents and children during the pandemic who never returned.

“Some parents are afraid to even let their kids come to daycare anymore. And then some parents never went back to work because they were afraid. And some parents now homeschool their kids,” she said. 

Michelle Anderson, director of early childhood and family programs at EdAdvance, which supports childcare providers in the northwest corner of the state, including Danbury, said she heard from providers in the rural areas that more parents were keeping their children at home. 

“In the rural area there’s possibly parents that chose to not send their child ever to preschool or daycare because of COVID,” she said. “I think there’s a little more of that here.”

According to Anderson, providers in the rural regions were having difficulty competing for older children in areas where the public schools offered preschool. She said the centers were looking at ways to increase their capacity for infants and toddlers, possibly with the help of the state, which set aside $25 million in the state budget to fund an additional 1,300 spaces for infants and toddlers. 

Bye told CT Examiner that COVID had reduced the number of parents sending three and four-year-olds to daycare, which was impacting daycare centers’ ability to make money. 

“I think we still have some of that covid hesitancy. And also, I think parents made other plans during COVID other than a formal program, and have stuck with those,” she said.

“Parents need that support”

The $25 million given to infant toddler seats was part of about $108 million set aside in the state budget to be put toward additional funds to childcare for infant-toddler seats, funding for preschool programs and infrastructure support. Bye said that the funds had increased the money the state paid toward infant-toddler seats — from $9,000 to $13,500 for a slot. 

Last month, Governor Ned Lamont announced the release of an additional $70 million in bonuses of $1,000 to childcare workers, a move that received mixed reviews from childcare providers.  

“It’s something,” said Reyes. “Not a lot, but it always helps.” 

Other providers criticized the $1,000 bonuses. Scarpati said she didn’t think it was fair that new hires would get paid the same bonuses that long-time workers would receive. And Goldburn said that it’s not going to make a difference in terms of long-term retention of staff. 

“Somebody who can go out and double their salary is not going to stay in childcare for a thousand dollars bonus,” said Goldburn. “So a thousand dollars will be nice, and that person will stay until they get the thousand dollars, and then after they get the thousand dollars, they’ll just double their salary someplace else.”

Bye said the $1,000 support payments were partially to tide the workers and businesses over until parents started to feel more comfortable sending their children back to daycare post-COVID. She also said that the state was rolling out other payments, including retention or longevity bonuses and bonuses for people who earned more advanced degrees in early childhood education. 

The providers say that grants they were able to receive from the Women’s Business Development Council, in combination with the Office of Early Childhood, have been helpful — they have used the money for projects like expanding the basement areas where they care for the children or buying supplies.

“Oh my God. That helped me so much,” said McGee, who received a grant of $30,000, “I was able to get my floors done. I was able to buy more stuff that I needed — as far as a playpen, a crib. I was able to [start] on my basement … because I wanted to expand my basement, to move my daycare into my basement to make it bigger — that way I can get more kids and hire two staffs.”

The childcare workers union is currently in negotiations with the state to develop Care4Kids rates for the next three years – some of the providers who spoke with CT Examiner are union members or working with the union on the negotiations. 

But providers also have other ideas about what can be done to help the industry. Scarpati said she wanted to see more parents get a monthly credit or a tax credit at the end of the year for childcare. 

Settle said she felt the access to Care4Kids needs to be broadened to reach a wider demographic of parents. Currently, eligibility is capped at 50 percent of the State Median Income: $63,721 for a family of four. 

“The biggest problem that I’m seeing is parents who don’t fall into the income limits,” she said. “The price of gas going up, the price of food going up, and the price of childcare is skyrocketing. Parents need that support — not just poor parents, but the more middle class parents need help paying for childcare as well.”

Rodriguez agreed.

“When they do the application … They look at the numbers of how much they made without taxes. They don’t care how much you’re paying [in] rent, how much you’re paying [in] health insurance. And if they do all the deductions, they [are] going to notice that the family really needs help.”

“A lot of lip service” 

Bye said at the New Haven press conference that what really needs to happen is a systemic change in how early childhood education is valued. She said the state had invested its largest amount ever in childcare with the help of federal funds, but that it wasn’t enough. 

“The long-term structural issue is that we need to value this work. There’s a lot of lip service given to early childhood ed … but the funds have just not followed,” said Bye. “We’ve invested well over $600 million from the beginning of the pandemic through this fiscal year … and then the question that follows is, why are things still so hard? Because we haven’t done the long term structural work.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is running for reelection in the 3rd Congressional District, said that Congress had earmarked $1 billion for childcare in their budget bill, including about $10 million for Connecticut. But Bye said the state would need several hundred million dollars to fully fund Care4Kids.

“This problem requires a federal solution … and state solutions,” she said. “The bottom line is, in order to have that access for families — quality of program that we know young children’s brains deserve and children just deserve inherently, and the economic impact that this could have on our country, we need to make that larger investment.” 

Bye told CT Examiner that she was disappointed by the federal government’s failure to pass the Build Back Better Act, which would have provided about $450 billion in total for the childcare industry. 

“We managed to fund bridges. We managed to fund chips. And we managed to do the green energy — all important, but children’s brains and families, economic security and emotional and health wellbeing, I think just got left on the shelf. And it’s really discouraging,” said Bye. “For those of us who’ve worked in the field for so long, we finally thought our values had shifted.”


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com