Owners and operators of child care centers across Maine urged lawmakers Tuesday to support a bill that would allocate $5 million a year to easing the child care shortage, and boosting wages and training for early childhood educators.

Jordyn Rossignol, who runs Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool in Caribou, told legislators of one employee with a degree in early childhood education who left for a job at a hardware store because she couldn’t support herself working in the field.

“One day she came to me crying saying, ‘I don’t want to leave but I have to because I can’t afford to live off what you are able to pay me,’ ” Rossignol said. “So she’s using her degree, at a hardware store.”

Rossignol spoke at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business on a bill that would bolster Maine’s child care system with a $5 million annual investment in training, wage subsidies and other supports.

The bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said Maine’s economy depends on workers being able to find safe, affordable and effective early childcare. He described child care workers as “the workforce behind the workforce.”

“Outside of one-time money from the federal government, I believe a sustained investment from our state is crucial to retaining and building on the gains in recruitment and retention when the (American Recovery Plan) funds lapse in fiscal year 2024,” Fecteau said.

His bill would provide state money on top of federal relief funds to boost wages, continue training programs and offer scholarships for those entering the child care field in Maine.

“Through scholarships we can help them graduate without student debt so that early childhood education is a step on a career ladder of meaningful work on behalf of Maine children and their families,” Fecteau said.

Child care providers who testified Tuesday said the rates they charge parents are what can be borne by the local economy. But those rates aren’t enough to pay higher wages and many workers are lured away by higher-paying jobs that require less education and training.

Sasha Shunk, a long-time licensed child care provider in Portland, told lawmakers that quality child care is vital to the state’s economy.

“Because my family child care is open today, 20 parents are able to go to work,” Shunk said. “If I have to close, 20 businesses are at risk of losing a productive employee. This is already happening in my community; families are struggling because they cannot find childcare, businesses are struggling because they cannot find employees. In Portland, there are literally not enough child care slots for the number of children in the city.”

Shunk and others said child care providers struggle to find and keep qualified workers, which makes it difficult for them to expand and take in more children. Many have long waiting lists, keeping parents who want to work from doing so because they simply can’t find safe places for their children.

“A strong economy is dependent on thriving businesses,” Shunk said. “For a business to thrive, they must have reliable employees. In order to have reliable employees, those employees need access to high quality child care.”

Fecteau’s legislation, L.D. 1652, follows on the heels of federal funding that Gov. Janet Mills has already targeted to Maine’s child care system to support wages and expansion.

Under a plan released earlier this month by Mills, the Department of Health and Human Services will use $10 million for expanding infant and toddler care in rural Maine, and the Department of Education will use the other $10 million to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs run by public schools.

Mills also allocates another $20 million of the funding to career and technical education centers, which offer gateway training for future child care workers.

Those testifying said the average wage for a child care worker in Maine is currently $12.80 an hour, or a gross income of $26,624 a year. The average hourly wage for all workers in Maine is more than $24 an hour, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fecteau’s bill, which would be paid for by the state’s general fund, would provide money to supplement the salaries of qualified workers at both private and nonprofit child care operations. The measure also would earmark regular funding to continue and expand apprenticeship programs, and to provide scholarships to students working toward associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in early childhood education.

The measure also would promote increased collaboration between the state’s university, community college and adult education programs on credit transfers and credentialing requirements.

The bill will be the subject of a committee work session before it moves to the full Legislature for consideration later this month.


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