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Business and Economy

Maine's Child Care Facilities Are Still Struggling To Find Workers. They Hope New Federal Funding Will Help

Phil Murphy
Mary Altaffer
/
AP
In this Sept. 16, 2021, file photo Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3-and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, N.J. As Democrats push ahead with President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion rebuilding plan, they are promising historic investments across all levels of education. The proposal includes universal prekindergarten, two years of free community college and expanded child care subsidies, among others.

On Monday, state officials announced that child care providers could apply for more than $73 million in federal funds to pay for everything from rent and utilities to increased salaries for their workers. The new round of funding is part of more than $120 million in new money flooding into Maine's childcare sector from the federal government. Todd Landry, the director of the state's Office of Child and Family Services, describes the recent investment as "unprecedented," and says it will help to expand childcare and provide subsidies to families.

"It's intended for working families, to get the help that they need to pay for quality and safe childcare, so that they can be in the workforce," Landry says.

But the funding comes following a turbulent year-and-a-half for the industry. Some providers have been forced to close classrooms, leaving parents desperately searching for care.

Reporter Robbie Feinberg spoke to Tara Williams, the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, who says there are signs of new life in the sector.

Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tara Williams: Overall across the state, there's over 100 programs that have closed permanently. We've also seen over 100 new programs open up in the same time. So there's a lot of hope there. The hard part within what's happening is that those that are open, the majority are not at full capacity. They have had to either reduce the number of children they enroll, or sometimes close entire classrooms or whole age groups of children they serve. For example, not serving infants anymore, or not serving infants and toddlers to try to handle the workforce shortages and the uncertainty that's going on.

Robbie Feinberg: This is also coming in the midst of an economy-wide labor shortage. And for years, the childcare industry has talked about its own shortage and has long struggled to find workers. So how bad is that now?

It keeps getting worse. And I feel like I talk about this on and off with folks within the childcare sector, and then in the general public over the last year through COVID, and before that. I can't believe I have to say again, it's worse because it keeps getting worse. We have childcare programs that it's not just having, you know, one person show up for an interview, we have now situations where no one is responding to job openings, where people are continuing to give notice and leave programs. I'm regularly talking to center directors who have three openings, 10 openings, 15 openings, depending on the size of their program and can't find anyone.

So Monday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was providing $73 million in federal aid to child care centers. This is part of the more than $100 million that's coming to the sector from the American Rescue Plan. Now this money can go to everything from bonuses for workers to things as basic as rent or utilities. What do you think that this new money will mean for providers?

This new money is coming out a crucial time in the childcare sector. And these federal funds that are coming to Maine, I think are going to truly do what their name says that in the stabilization grants, they will stabilize the childcare sector because this is the level of funding that will meet the need that we've been hearing about for over a year. Most programs that stayed open did so not only because of previous childcare relief funds, but also because they accessed a PPP loan or something else. And any previous round of funding that came through was not up to scale to really meet the need of the revenue losses and their increased expenses. And so a lot of these programs have just been incurring debt that just keeps growing all year. I talked to one program who said she was able to add up this monthly stipend she's about to start getting. And at the end of the year, after she gets all of the money, it will add up to almost to the dollar exactly the amount of debt she's incurred throughout COVID. So it's going to do just what it's intended to do, it's going to stabilize her program and cover all of her debt.

So these grants will cover the next year or two. But childcare was already at something of a crisis point before the pandemic. So are there any worries about what happens when this money does run out in a year or two, and how parents and centers can keep going?

The bottom line for me is just knowing that not only with everything we've gone through with COVID. But just what this childcare sector has been like for its whole existence for decades, it's always been kind of this untenable business model that asked the parents of our youngest children to really hold the whole cost of childcare. So I think now is really the time to build a system of childcare that works. And right now at the federal level, they are in the midst of negotiating legislation that would bring us the strongest public investment in childcare we've ever seen in this country. That would mean allocating resources to Maine that could allow us to basically do - the level of support that's coming in this childcare stabilization grant - to build something similar to that that would be ongoing and consistent. That would really make sure that we could lower cost for families that we could pay the teachers and staff who work in childcare better, and that we could have just really stable - not just stable, but I think, thriving childcare in Maine. I really [have] my fingers crossed for a strong childcare and public pre-K bill with with really good funding to come to me very soon.