Sen. Richard Bennett

Last year, the Legislature’s Children’s Caucus hosted a panel of Maine child care workers who shared their challenges both before and during the pandemic.

recent research report by Council for a Strong America puts into perspective the financial tolls that child care workforce challenges place on Maine’s economy. The report notes that the lack of child care just for infants and toddlers exacts an annual cost of $57 billion nationally in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. The estimate for Maine is about $180 million per year.

My major takeaway from this report and the panel presentation is that we, as policymakers, have failed this critical sector of Maine’s economy.

Child care workers were deemed essential during the pandemic, just like first responders and medical professionals. After all, first responders and so many others needed these providers to care for their children so they could do their own essential jobs.

When schools closed and parents needed to go to work, many assumed that children could just go to such programs. No one asked about the programs’ capacity, staffing, availability or needs. It was an assumption because it’s always been there.

The industry answered the call, and its workforce adjusted to the new world of COVID with often changing and sometimes conflicting guidance, and even longer workdays. Initially, there were no new resources to support them. Many went into debt. Some went unpaid. Yet, they were there to care for our children because that’s what they do and love. They felt obligated to the children in their care, and to their parents and families.

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Child care workers are historically paid poorly. According to a September 2021 report by the U.S. Treasury, the sector’s workers earn in the second percentile of all occupations. Thus, 98% of all other workers in the U.S. make more.

These past two years have undeniably showed how important child care is to the functioning of our economy. Parents have had to juggle child rearing and work simultaneously, while businesses came face-to-face with the reality that parents can’t work without reliable care. That connection makes addressing parents’ barriers to high-quality care a priority issue for business leaders. It should be a priority to policymakers as well.

Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau is championing the issue, and Gov. Janet Mills has agreed by earmarking $12 million in the state’s supplemental budget to continue the $200 monthly wage stipend to every child care worker in Maine. Federal funds in the American Rescue Plan originally made the stipend possible, but that ends in September. This proposal will continue it afterward.

The proposal also increases funding for early education at Maine’s Career and Technical Education programs by $100,000, which will help Maine build the needed future pipeline of child care educators by supporting multiple pathways for skill development, training, and educational opportunities in the field of early education.

Supporting Maine’s child care industry in this way is bipartisan. To quote one of my fellow Republican senators, “it’s a no-brainer.” While there will be other parts of the budget in which we disagree, support for Maine’s child care workers currently has bipartisan support.

The IDEA and Business Committee recently supported the bill unanimously. I will be encouraging all of my other House and Senate colleagues in both parties to also support continuing wage supplements for our critical child care workers.

If every family were able to access the quality child care they need, we could increase workforce participation across Maine and unleash the potential for true economic growth. We would also have more people choosing to move here specifically to work and raise their children.

That’s how important this investment is to our state. The proposal in the supplemental state budget is the beginning of a strategic, targeted investment in quality early care and education for Maine’s youngest children that will shore up our economy’s foundation and pay dividends for years to come.

Sen. Rick Bennett represents Maine Senate District 19 and is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources and Government Oversight committees. He is also the Senate chair of the Maine Children’s Caucus.


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