With unemployment across the nation at a slim 3.7 percent in September, more Americans are working than ever.
Low unemployment is a good thing, but it presents an additional challenge in one already challenging area – child care – the ability to find it and the ability to afford it. Some say the issue is reaching critical mass.
Families are struggling more than ever to find affordable day care. They are finding limited spaces and more competition for financial aid.
While the day care industry is expanding throughout the region, and the growth is expected to continue, there are gaps in care that can have a ripple effect across the economy.
Child care is crucial to keep the Lehigh Valley working, said Shawn Deiter, marketing and communications manager for Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers, which serves Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties. “If parents have to stay home with their child it makes it hard for them to work.”
CHILD CARE DESERT
The impact is being felt locally.
Three cities in Pennsylvania – Allentown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh – are considered to be among the nation’s worst child care deserts, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based child care advocacy group Child Care Aware.
A child care desert is an area where the demand for child care outpaces the availability of day care slots by at least three to one.
A lack of accessible day care impacts a working parent’s ability to get and keep a job – and for those companies that employ them, a lack of proper child care can have a significant impact on productivity.
“In a tight labor market child care becomes one more obstacle to employment,” said Al Ottinger, principal consultant at QIC Inc. of Allentown and co-chair of the Berks County Early Learning Coalition. “The challenge is accessibility and affordability.”
According to Child Care Aware, even in times of lower employment and better availability of child care many families pay as much for a year of child care as they do for a year of rent. And day care costs – especially for families with more than one child in care – can exceed a month’s rent.
The message of accessibility and affordability is the crux of an argument made by those advocating for more corporate and community involvement in improving the child care environment.
In a recent survey of employers by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., 71 percent said obtaining and retaining qualified workers was their top concern.
While child care wasn’t specifically mentioned, attendance was. George Lewis, director of research and analysis for the LVEDC, said child care is one of the factors that contributes to absenteeism. If parents can’t find child care, they can’t work that day.
“To keep the economy growing, we must understand and address issues facing employers and job seekers,” Lewis said.
ALREADY ON BOARD
Some companies nationally have been proactive in making sure child care needs are taken care of so employees can concentrate on their job.
Starbucks recently announced it would subsidize supplemental day care for employees if their normal child care falls through, a plan expected to reduce absenteeism.
Locally the health care industry is one of the Lehigh Valley’s largest employers. Lehigh Valley Health Network does offer some assistance in helping its employees with child care.
“With 18,000 colleagues it’s difficult to offer care options to everyone who needs it, but we do try to assist as many as we can,” said Brian Downs, LVHN public information officer.
The network, for example has a child care center at its Cedar Crest Campus and also has special arrangements for its employees at several other child care facilities in the area.
Similarly, St. Luke’s University Health Network contracts with Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers to provide dedicated child care services for staff at its Fountain Hill headquarters.
When it comes to filling the need for day care space, the private sector appears to be responding.
One example is Lightbridge Academy, a regional chain of day care centers that has been expanding rapidly in the Greater Lehigh Valley.
“I think the need is kind of what’s happening in the economy,” said Steve DiNunzio, who owns the Bethlehem Lightbridge franchise and is building a second center in Upper Macungie Township. “There’s no question there’s a demand in the Lehigh Valley.”
That’s part of the reason why he’s expanding, as is the quickly growing franchise. It has 35 locations throughout the East Coast and plans to have 100 by 2020.
“The need will continue. The need will always be there,” he said.
MORE THAN RENT
But what about the cost?
Day care costs can depend on the type of day care, services provided and the age of a child, noted Charles Dinofrio, vice president of early education and child care programs for Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers, an Allentown-based nonprofit.
His organization charges from about $116 per week for full-time care for a school-aged child to close to $200 for full-time infant care.
Some for-profit day care centers can charge $50 or more a day higher than that.
Dinofrio said that while there are more expensive day care centers, most are run on a fairly tight budget.
Day care providers are not high earners. Center directors and program coordinators at LVCC tend to earn an average of under $40,000 per year. Leads and teacher assistance make an average of under $30,000.
Overall he said the cost to provide day care services is more than $13,600 per year for an infant – a service LVCC runs at a loss. The cost for older children is less, just over $10,000 per year, which helps offset the higher infant costs, but it’s still a tight budget, so cuts aren’t an option.
And there is a need to keep the care affordable for working families.
For some parents with financial need, state help is available from Pennsylvania’s Child Care Works subsidized child care program, but there is often a waiting list to get on the program.
As a nonprofit, LVCC can offer scholarships to low income families to tide them over until they can get on Child Care Works. There are limits there as well.
BUSINESS CAN HELP
That’s why groups like Berks Early Learning Coalition are adopting a strategy to approach the business community about making private investments in early education and child care beyond what is coming in from the state, Ottinger said.
Ottinger said it’s not just helping to stabilize the workforce, reaching children with educational care at an early age helps reduce the dropout rate and crime rate and gives more young people the background they need to enter the workforce in the future.
“It’s an economic proposal for business,” he said. He said any money companies invest in assisting with child care and early education now is an investment in the company’s own future.
While availability and cost are cited as the biggest challenges families face with child care, there can be one more hurdle some working families need to address – a child’s behavior.
Some children simply don’t adapt well to day care on their own and develop behavioral problems ranging from social issues to violent behavior.
In many cases bad behavior can get a child kicked out of day care.
Then what can the parents do?
A parent may be forced to give up work to stay home with the child or seek out specialized care that may not be affordable or available.
But for families in the Lehigh Valley there is another option, an option that those who run the program say is unique in the nation.
The program is called Unconditional Child Care, run by Pinebrook Family Answers in Allentown. The program works with 145 of the 440 day care centers in the Lehigh Valley to help children with behavioral issues so that they can avoid expulsion.
Some of the behavior they deal with can be serious said Shelly Feller, program manager for Unconditional Child Care.
“There’s biting, furniture throwing, abusive language,” she said. “The teachers have tried all of the strategies they have and they haven’t worked.”
The program works with the child care provider, family and child to develop a plan to deal with the behavior issues. Feller said the success rate of keeping the child in a regular day care is 97 percent.
Feller emphasizes that while loss of child care can be particularly devastating to low-income families, there is no income level that is immune to the problem. Any parent, whether a factory worker or a CEO, will feel the stress of worrying about the stability of their child care – and that will impact job performance.
“Every parent when they get that call from [the child care provider] has to ask the question, ‘do I leave for my child or do I stay for my job,” Feller said.
– STACY WESCOE