With 175 day care operations in Maine permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, and almost one-third of the surviving day cares operating at a financial deficit, advocates say Maine’s child care facilities are struggling – and the result is hurting working parents and the economy.

And with schools opening with in-person instruction soon, growing demand for day care services will put further pressure on the industry, they say.

“Parents used to call around and find a center that was a good fit, coming in and meeting the staff and doing a tour and asking lots of questions, but now it’s kind of like, if they can find a spot, they’re going to take it,” said Tina Jennings, director of community and youth engagement at the YMCA in Auburn. “Some of them don’t even want to tour. They’re like, ‘Yep! I’ll take it!’ because finding a spot has been so difficult.”

As of June 1, 10 percent of all of Maine’s child care centers – 175 – had closed since March 2, 2020, with five closing in the Lewiston-Auburn area, according to information from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Of those 175, 64 were child care facilities, 10 were nursery schools and 101 were family child cares. In Lewiston-Auburn, three were child care facilities and two were family child cares.

Another indication of the decline: The number of licensed child care providers in the state declined by 112 from March 2, 2020, to June 7, 2021, according to DHHS Communications Director Jackie Farwell, though programs now being licensed will bolster the number by about 50.

The shortage of providers is putting more pressure on existing day care operations. Forty-three percent of child care program operators surveyed by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children in the spring noted the challenge of growing waitlists, while about one-third said they were still under-enrolled as the pandemic’s effects lingered.

Steve Wallace, CEO at the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston in Auburn, said that on the “macro level,” he has seen a huge demand for child care. “I see the demand to be high, and part of that reason has to do with the number of child care centers that have shut down,” Wallace said.

Steve Wallace, CEO of the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston in Auburn, is seen Thursday at his desk. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Jennifer Merrill, association director of early childhood education at the YMCA, agreed. “I have multiple families that are on every single waiting list in the Lewiston-Auburn area and whoever calls them first, they’re going to take that spot because they can’t go to work until we can provide care.”

Both Merrill and Jennings warned that slots are going to fill up quickly as kids go back to school.

The shortage is creating a financial strain on day cares, as well as on parents who need child care in order to work, which is having a dampening effect on the economy in Maine and the nation, advocates say.

The combined data portrays a clear trend: Many centers are struggling to stay open. According to the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children’s spring 2021 survey, 29 percent of providers said they have been operating at a financial deficit.

“My biggest issue right now is staffing,” Wallace said. “When you’re a parent, you want to leave your child in the best possible hands. Part of the problem right now is pay. Everybody wants the cheapest price for their child care, but everyone that works there wants $15 to $16 an hour, and those things don’t work together – the business model doesn’t work.”

Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, agreed. “The economic model just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work well for most stakeholders. It is super expensive – parents are generally paying more than they can afford or they can’t afford child care – while teachers and staff working in child care are generally making minimum wage or not much above.”

Wallace said that the burnout and low pay has led some people to exit the field and become ed techs in schools, CNAs or desk clerks, or to seek work in banks and call centers.

“Since COVID began, another factor is kids’ behaviors are elevating,” Wallace said. “Makes sense when Mom and Dad are stressed and worrying about their day-to-day survival that some of those emotions will be picked up by kids. Again, this leads to burnout and questions about having a long-term career in early childhood education.”

Williams noted that more people are recognizing the “folks who work in child care as the workforce behind the workforce.”

Meg Helming, director of advocacy and impact at the YMCA Alliance of Northern New England, said the child care system was already vulnerable for many years before the pandemic. She agreed that one “silver lining” has been the “increased understanding across sectors about how important child care is to a functioning, healthy economy.”

Kim Russell, state director for the Council for a Strong America, backed that up. “Child care in Maine has always been very fragile, and there was a bright spotlight shone on it during the pandemic, when it became obvious to everyone that parents not having child care is a workforce barrier.”

Jennings, at the YMCA, said the child care shortage has directly affected women. “The lack of child care nationwide has an effect on the workforce, primarily with women. There’s a reduction of women in the workforce due to lack of child care, unfortunately. It’s a country problem, not just a Lewiston-Auburn problem.”

State leaders have taken note. Last month, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law LD 1712, a bill that will expand access to quality and affordable child care in Maine. The measure includes investing $20 million through the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan to help Maine communities build, expand, or repair new child care facilities and expand early childhood education programs, and features a Child Care Plan for Maine.

Also, during the most recent session of the Maine Legislature, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, proposed a bill, LD 1652, to recruit and retain Maine’s early childhood educators workforce through scholarships, apprenticeships, wage supplements and career pathways, while state Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, proposed LD 1678, a bill to support child care providers and school readiness through tax credits for programs, early educators and families.

Both pieces of legislation were carried over to the next session of the Legislature.

“A lot of what we’re seeing pushed for in Maine and across the country right now – to help locally places like Lewiston and Auburn and then broader in our state – is more public funding and more public investment,” Williams said.

“I’m hoping that (the pandemic) has allowed everyone in the community, period, to realize how important child care is,” Merrill said. “When a child care center closes down and you serve 65 families, that’s 65 families, sometimes double that, who can’t go to work and that impacts everybody.”

Williams said that federal and state efforts to support more and better child care give her hope for the future of child care. “I think we have much better momentum and commitment to real change this year and next year and in the coming years,” she said.

“Of course, we will need commitment at multiple levels, meaning that for this to really change, we need to see leadership take this up as a core part of their work— federal government leadership is great, but we also need to see leadership at the state level, in town councils and city governments across the state.”

She added, “I am continually amazed and impressed by the strong and resilient women who work in this field who will put everything they have into supporting young children and supporting young families. It takes my breath away, honestly.”

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