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‘We are in a crisis’: Tampa Bay child care industry faces pandemic struggles

It’s far from business as usual for child care providers or families with young children.
Shanoah Washington-Davis, 28, works with her students Arya Morales, 2, top, Tyson McCray, 2, far left, and Axel Vines, 3, front, at Washington-Davis’ home Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Largo.
Shanoah Washington-Davis, 28, works with her students Arya Morales, 2, top, Tyson McCray, 2, far left, and Axel Vines, 3, front, at Washington-Davis’ home Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Largo. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Oct. 6
Updated Oct. 6

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

Shanoah Washington-Davis didn’t know the little boy she was caring for had tested positive for COVID-19 until she started feeling sick.

The longtime licensed child care provider was forced to temporarily shut down her Largo home business in April. She ended up in an intensive care unit, on a ventilator, as she fought the virus. When she was released weeks later, many of the children she cared for had transferred to other providers.

Washington-Davis said she understands why the boy’s family hadn’t said anything. The child was asymptomatic, and his mother was desperate to keep working as a nurse.

Still, the 28-year-old caregiver said she and other providers are often having to make difficult decisions amid the pandemic.

“The world does not function without child care providers,” Washington-Davis said. “But I’ll tell you, we are in a crisis. The crisis of our life.”

The nation’s private child care industry was already struggling with high turnover and tight margins before the pandemic. Now, it is dealing with staffing shortages, constant disruptions from coronavirus quarantines and threats to workers’ health from the virus.

Worsening issues have meant even fewer open seats and continued uncertainty for parents searching for care.

“We are seeing less access,” said Lindsay Carson, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County. She said she’s heard stories of desperate parents having to drive across town to find an available child care spot.

Carson and others say the industry’s woes could have a profound economic impact by keeping parents from going back to work.

Data provided by licensing agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties shows that the total number of child care facilities has not changed much during the pandemic. That may be in part thanks to federal grants and other aid aimed at propping up child care providers during this tumultuous time, experts say.

But Carson said the number of providers who say they are on the verge of insolvency is on the rise.

One of the biggest problems, she said, is finding enough workers.

Michelle Butts, St. Pete College intern, left, talks with Rashaan Stone Jr., as they work through an exercise during a preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. In background in center, assistant teacher Charisse Gahagan works with students. The nation’s private child care industry, already struggling before the pandemic, is being pushed into an even more precarious position as providers deal with staffing shortages and constant disruptions from coronavirus quarantines. R'Club Child Care has raised employee wages and offered referral bonuses. But there are still times that classrooms have to be kept closed due to insufficient staffing.
Michelle Butts, St. Pete College intern, left, talks with Rashaan Stone Jr., as they work through an exercise during a preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. In background in center, assistant teacher Charisse Gahagan works with students. The nation’s private child care industry, already struggling before the pandemic, is being pushed into an even more precarious position as providers deal with staffing shortages and constant disruptions from coronavirus quarantines. R'Club Child Care has raised employee wages and offered referral bonuses. But there are still times that classrooms have to be kept closed due to insufficient staffing. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Like employers in other service industries, child care providers say they’re having trouble recruiting employees to lower-wage jobs that require face-to-face interaction, in this case with unvaccinated children.

Nationally, the median wage for child care workers is a little more than $12 an hour, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Hillsborough’s Early Learning Coalition estimated that its providers are seeing about a 10 percent shortage compared to normal staffing levels.

Citrus Park Day School in Tampa has a waiting list of more than 100 children, and two empty classrooms sitting ready, said Surely Moreno, director and co-owner. The problem is finding enough workers to staff them.

“Parents are calling, requesting tours. Everybody is going back to work,” Moreno said. But she has to turn them away, though she could sorely use the income. “I’ve never had a problem before with not being able to staff.”

Many job applicants have never worked with children, she said, and are still asking for more than the $12 an hour she can offer. Workers could make more at Walmart and Wawa, but raising pay would likely mean raising tuition, something she worries her families can ill-afford.

“As an owner, I’m not making money at all,” Moreno said, noting that her costs for things like a gallon of milk or cleaning supplies have risen during the pandemic.

Deb Ballinger, executive director of R’Club Child Care Inc. in Pinellas County, said her organization has raised its starting hourly rate by 50 cents to $11 and has offered referral bonuses to staff and parents. It’s advertised job openings on billboards and buses.

Still, she said, there have been times lately that she’s had to keep a classroom closed due to staffing.

A September survey of providers that work with the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County found that 52 percent reported having waiting lists of children due to staffing scarcity.

Sixteen percent of those surveyed reported being at risk of insolvency or closure because of inadequate staffing.

Carson said she’s heard of facilities that have closed infant rooms amid staffing shortages to move workers to the sometimes more profitable 4-year-old rooms. Families of the youngest children, infants through age 2, already are the most likely to be on waiting lists for care, she said.

Allison Hornbeck, VPK teacher, in center, and assistant teacher Charisse Gahagan, dance with their students during a movement exercise in their preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. The nation’s private child care industry, already struggling before the pandemic, is being pushed into an even more precarious position as providers deal with staffing shortages and constant disruptions from coronavirus quarantines. R'Club Child Care has raised employee wages and offered referral bonuses. But there are still times that classrooms have to be kept closed due to insufficient staffing.
Allison Hornbeck, VPK teacher, in center, and assistant teacher Charisse Gahagan, dance with their students during a movement exercise in their preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. The nation’s private child care industry, already struggling before the pandemic, is being pushed into an even more precarious position as providers deal with staffing shortages and constant disruptions from coronavirus quarantines. R'Club Child Care has raised employee wages and offered referral bonuses. But there are still times that classrooms have to be kept closed due to insufficient staffing. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases among children and staff and the resulting quarantines continue to plague the industry.

Between June 2020 and mid-September, Hillsborough County recorded about 2,200 coronavirus cases in child care facilities, said Lisa Bragano, the manager for child care licensing. That’s likely an undercount, because the county relies on providers to self-report.

Unlike public school funding, Carson noted, which is relatively static even when students are not in class, private child care providers may lose crucial tuition when they have to shut down a classroom due to COVID-19. As they do in K-12 schools, those quarantines also place stress on parents, particularly those without the flexibility to work from home.

Imagination Station Preschool in St. Petersburg has had six coronavirus cases among children so far, said owner Jackie Lang. She counts herself lucky that she’s had to do classroom quarantines only twice in this most recent wave of infections.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for us,” Lang said. She and other providers described frustration with conflicting or little guidance from the health department and other agencies on how to handle quarantines and how to find out when families at their facilities test positive.

Worries about the virus and possible quarantines put workers like Catina Bell on edge.

“We’re at risk every day as well as the kids,” said Bell, who has worked at Imagination Station for three years and been in the business for two decades. Bell said her employer can’t afford to pay her if she has to leave work and be quarantined.

“We don’t know from day to day if we’re going to have a job, if the school will close. The anxiety really kicks in,” Bell said. “We just put our best foot forward and go for it.”

The preschool has instituted a two-week waiting period for prospective families wanting to enroll. It’s a deterrent, Lang said, to keep parents whose kids have been sent home to quarantine from bringing them to her center instead.

She recently had a grandparent drop off a child whose mother and brother had tested positive for the coronavirus. The family was stressed, telling Lang they didn’t know what to do when she called to tell them the child couldn’t stay and had to be quarantined.

Lang understands the desperation parents feel. But she needs to protect those in her facility, too, even if it means a loss in needed revenue.

“We’re overwhelmed at this point with decisions that have to be made,” Lang said.

Child care is already an expensive proposition for many families, making it all the more difficult for providers to raise tuition rates to better pay their workers or cover pandemic-related costs.

Nationally, more than 60 percent of families are paying a higher percentage of their income toward child care than what is considered affordable, according to a recent report from the U.S. Treasury Department.

In Hillsborough County, 37 percent of families with children are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, noted Gordon L. Gillette, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County. That means, he said, that a large proportion of families are struggling to pay for rent, electric bills and child care.

“I think that in the best of times, child care is a business that runs on very narrow margins,” Gillette said. “When you have a crisis like this, it’s even more challenging.”

Ballinger, of R’Club, said the pandemic has at least raised awareness of the value of child care for families and the economy.

“Child care providers are really essential care workers,” Ballinger said. “They are there to help families and our community get back to work and recover.”

Shanoah Washington-Davis, 28, holds 8 week-old Alexis Lezama as Washington-Davis works with her students at her home Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in Largo.
Shanoah Washington-Davis, 28, holds 8 week-old Alexis Lezama as Washington-Davis works with her students at her home Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021 in Largo. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Washington-Davis said her business was closed for more than a month after she got sick. After she left the hospital, she was on an oxygen tank for a while, leaving her husband — who also had the virus but fared better — to largely care for the remaining children.

Before the pandemic, her home child care facility was always at capacity with 12 children, plus a waiting list. At the beginning of the pandemic, she dropped down to about three kids and was driving for Uber Eats after hours to make ends meet.

These days, she cares for eight children, she said. She’d love to get back up to 12 but is worried about protecting the safety of the little ones in her care.

“I don’t know how long I can stay at eight,” she said. “But God has taken care of us every step of the way. I have to say that it’s just going to work itself out.”