Where did they go? To better-paying jobs stocking shelves, cleaning offices or doing anything that pays more than $15 an hour.
Carolina Reyes was surprised when she heard that an assistant teacher at her child-care center in suburban Maryland was quitting for a job cleaning high school classrooms. The hours — 6 p.m. to midnight — seemed crummy. And the work hardly seemed more satisfying.
But then Ms. Reyes, who owns the center, heard about the salary — $24 per hour, compared with the $15 she was able to offer.
The worker was only one of several Ms. Reyes lost recently — part of a national exodus from the child-care profession. The shortage is contributing to a crisis for parents, as child-care providers close their doors or limit enrollment in response to a labor market in which they cannot compete.
There are 100,000 fewer child-care workers than there were before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even as private-sector employment fully rebounded over the summer from the job losses caused by Covid-19, the child care sector shrank and was 9.7 percent smaller last month than it was in February 2020, federal data shows.
Program directors point to a few explanations for the shortage: competition from other sectors, as well as regulations — including license requirements, vaccine and masking rules — that could dim the enthusiasm of some job candidates.
The typical American child-care worker earns about $13 per hour, and many earn just above minimum wage. Last year, 29 percent were so poor that they experienced food insecurity, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon.
Positions stocking shelves at Target, ringing up groceries at Trader Joe’s, and packing and loading boxes at Amazon warehouses now often pay more than jobs in child-care programs in many parts of the country. Working at a nail salon or managing pharmacy benefits over the phone can also lead to higher earnings.
A recession could lessen the crunch for child-care staff, if competing employers slowed hiring or cut pay. But even before the pandemic, 98 percent of occupations paid more than child care, and the sector, which was already dealing with widespread shortages and high staff turnover, was not robust enough to meet many families’ needs.
Now, signing up on an online job board as a child-care worker yields dozens of queries from interested employers in potentially higher-paying jobs in other fields — airport security, food services, hotels.
“Child care has been completely left behind as a competitive employer,” said Elliot Haspel, an early-childhood education expert at Capita, a family policy group.
The mathematics of child care are not easy to solve, in part because programs run on such tight margins. In Maryland, center directors like Ms. Reyes earn an average of $41,000 a year. And Ms. Reyes cannot simply raise tuition in order to pay herself or her workers more; child care is already a leading household expense and a service that is unaffordable for 60 percent of the families who need it, according to the Treasury Department.
Nor are there efficiencies to be found from new technologies. “You can’t cut costs — there is no automation, there’s no remote,” said Christina Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Child Care Association. “What do you do? Not give a kid a snack? Not have an adult in the room?”
Many child care professionals find that the numbers just don’t add up.
In Bridgeport, Conn., Emily Mingia-Lewis, 42, shut down the child-care program she ran out of her home in October 2021. It was one of about 12,000 program closures to occur nationally during the pandemic, according to research from Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy organization.
For six years, Ms. Mingia-Lewis, who holds an associate degree in early childhood education, meticulously planned lessons for toddlers that involved activities like the creation of art projects linked to picture books. She loved the work, she said.
In a good year, the program brought in over $40,000 in revenue. But out of that income, she paid an assistant, advertised to recruit new students and purchased supplies, such as the meat, the fruits and the vegetables that she served for lunch each day.
After separating from her husband, Ms. Mingia-Lewis, a mother of four, closed her program and looked for work that was more stable and offered higher pay. She cycled through a series of jobs over the past year, including selling life insurance and working at an Amazon warehouse, which she called “brutal.” She has now settled into a position as a commercial recruiter, placing recent high school graduates in manufacturing jobs.
The pay is $45,000 a year, on top of commissions, and she sees opportunity for advancement. The teacher in her enjoys helping young adults navigate the job market, she said, although she misses working with babies and toddlers.
“My manager laughs at me at times, because I literally will throw my glasses across the room and say: ‘Where are the children? I miss the children!’” she said.
Experts who study child care say that the market has long relied on women’s passion for the work to make up for low wages. But in the current economy, after years of pandemic stress, workers’ good will is in short supply. The American Rescue Plan helped prop the sector up through federal funding for personnel, facilities and supplies, but the money is already running low. And opposition from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, blocked President Biden’s plan to expand access to subsidized child care and to raise pay in the sector to a minimum of $15 an hour.
At the local level, plenty of Republican officeholders have acknowledged shortages in child-care slots and labor.
“I’ve been doing public policy stuff for 20 years, and never in my career has there been more talk about family policy on the political right than right now,” said Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “There is a recognition that families need help.”
Conservative states like Montana and Iowa have responded by relaxing regulations, increasing the number of children a caretaker can supervise and allowing 16-year-olds to care for up to 15 children.
Those measures are opposed by many child-development experts, who say they decrease safety and quality. But Ms. Reyes acknowledged that other state regulations can be burdensome. At her center, Arco Iris Bilingual Children’s Center, in Laurel, Md., most job seekers are eager to start work right away, she said, but the director must first fingerprint them and, if they are applying for lead teacher roles, submit their college degrees to the state for approval. If a degree is from a foreign country — which is often the case, she said, as many of her employees are immigrants — it must first be translated into English.
While she waits for the state to acknowledge the paperwork, the teacher cannot be left alone in a room with children. Many promising applicants accept higher-paying jobs in other fields while going through the bureaucracy, Ms. Reyes said.
Matthew Yglesias, a policy and politics writer, has suggested that in an economy where working at a gas station can pay better than child care, a targeted visa program could draw immigrants committed to the work.
But experts like Mr. Haspel, of Capita, point out that immigrants already make up about a fifth of the child-care work force. “You’re never going to be able to bring in enough immigrants to meet the staffing demand,” he said.
Instead, Mr. Haspel said, “We shouldn’t underestimate what states can do” arguing for using state and local taxes to bring child-care funding in line with K-12 spending.
While the policy debate continues, even upper-middle class parents are having trouble finding care. Elizabeth Sperber, a 38-year old assistant professor in Denver, joined eight child-care center waiting lists last year but has not been offered a single spot. As a result, she and her husband, a high school teacher, were forced into the highly competitive market for nannies, facing bidding wars for experienced caregivers similar to those on the housing market, Ms. Sperber said.
The couple are now participating in a nanny share with another family. The nanny earns $32 per hour, and Ms. Sperber and her husband are spending 23 percent of their pretax household income on care for their 1-year-old son. What has been especially frustrating, she said, was the assumption of some of her older colleagues, who had young children many years ago, that persistence — making follow-up calls to child-care centers — yields results.
Her dozens of visits, emails and phone calls have gotten her nowhere. She is unsure if she wants a second child.
“Realizing how expensive everything is, and then the instability of it, the cost, material and psychological?” she asked. “It really makes you question whether expanding your family is the right thing to do.”