Pandemic worsens Michigan’s child care challenges

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Megan Koops-Fisher said finding a child care center was hard even before the pandemic.

Koops-Fisher, a mother of three who works for a Holland nonprofit organization promoting early childhood development, said her child care provider announced it was closing about six weeks before her youngest child was born. That left her taking her 12-week-old daughter to the office when she returned to work.

“This little infant went with me to all these different meetings,” she said, adding that it took seven months to find child care facilities for all her children. “In reality, it was not like we had a choice of where to go. Due to the hours that we needed, we needed to go with the first option we could.”

The situation has worsened since March 2020, when pandemic-related shutdowns rolled through the child care industry. Child care deserts, low wages for workers and increasing costs are making child care less accessible in Michigan, experts say.

“I had a friend back this past November who had to keep their kids home on some days since the center their children went to did not have enough staff to cover ratios,” said Koops-Fisher, director of operations and partnerships for Ready to Learn. “Trying to find child care is tough for parents. It feels like there is zero choice, it is just where you get into.”

Some parents don’t have any options because they live in child care deserts, where there are more than three children for every available spot for child care, said Bernita Bradley, director of parent voice and outreach for the National Parent Union.

“Whole communities are cut off from early child care, such as Southwest Detroit,” Bradley said.

Kelsey Perdue, director of the Kids Count in Michigan project for the Michigan League for Public Policy, said 44% of Michigan residents live in a child care desert or an area where there’s not enough supply.

Additionally, early child care is not affordable for every family.

“The median family spends 19% of their income on it, and for a minimum-wage worker that number is 54%,” Perdue said.

In Michigan, the monthly cost per child can range from $878 to $1,135 depending on the age of a child, according to CostofChildCare.org. 

Those costs don’t just pay for child care workers. Child care providers pay for licensing, which can include fire inspections, health inspections and other facility inspections, said Sheryl Howard, director of Bailey Preschool & Childcare Center in East Lansing.

Howard said she would like to pay her workers more, but costs for running a child care center are high and nearly all funding comes from fees charged to parents.

The early child care workforce includes preschool teachers and child care workers who made about $11.13 per hour in 2019, only $1.68 more than Michigan’s minimum wage at the time, according to the report “Think Babies Michigan.” About a quarter of early childhood educators are eligible for food assistance and 42% for Medicare or Medicaid.

“I always say this is a job you do because you love it. It’s not a job because you’re going to become rich,” Howard said.

Howard also runs child care centers in Mason and Dansville. From the start of the pandemic, she said, about 27 out of 85 workers stayed with her.

“I think I’ve been interviewing non-stop for the last year and a half or two years,” she said.

Perdue said researchers have found turnover can be as high as 30% for child care workers.

“It’s hard to recruit, retain growth in the industry, but also focus on quality when you have this turnover that’s associated with having such low wages,” Perdue said.

Alicia Warren, senior director of policy and advocacy for Early Childhood Investment Corp., said policymakers should focus on long-term strategies to compensate child care workers. She pointed to programs in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., which help subsidize higher wages for those workers.

“It’s difficult to get people to go into this field, knowing that they’re going to make $11 an hour and not likely have the health care benefits or other benefits,” she said.