Covid pandemic puts pressure on Pittsburgh region’s child care services

Like so many businesses over the past two years, the child care industry has been whipsawed by the covid pandemic and its impact on the economy.

Some parents working from home or leaving their jobs have pulled their children from child care, which creates openings — if the centers can find sufficient staffing. But workers are hard to attract and retain, and classrooms have shuttered because of a lack of teachers, creating at times wait lists for those seeking child care. All the while, there is pressure on child care operators to raise wages while keeping services as affordable as possible.

“There is a crisis statewide,” said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, a Harrisburg-based organization.

A survey of its 2,700 members in the fall found that 92% had staffing problems and half had to close at least one classroom.

“The main reason (for the closings) is the low wages,” DeBell said. “It has gotten worse because of the omicron” variant of covid.

The Head Start program in Westmoreland County was short by about 30 workers at one point last year, though that has been reduced to about a dozen, said Tammy Patterson, vice president of children’s services for Westmoreland Community Action in Greensburg.

Even when prospective employees were identified to fill openings, some backed out when informed that Head Start requires workers to be vaccinated, said Patty Prior, program operations director.

Staffing shortages have forced JB’s Bright Beginnings in North Huntingdon to close some classrooms, so “we still have a wait list for our services,” said Kate Berger, owner of the child care center at Norwin’s former Scull Elementary School.

The privately owned child care center struggles with teacher recruitment and retention, Berger said, and that was happening even before the pandemic.

The Greensburg YMCA Child Development Program, with its preschool and school-age programs, needs more employees to adequately staff centers, said Executive Director Suzanne Printz.

“We have a waiting list” of children seeking care, Printz said. The YMCA’s Early Childhood Learning Center is serving 50 children but has a daily capacity of 66.

Four YMCA in-school sites at Hempfield Area and Greensburg Salem had to close because there were not enough employees, said Candace Vacha, director of YMCA Childcare Services.

In 2019 and 2020, the program had 32 employees and three coordinators operating eight sites. Since last year, the staff is down to 10 employees and one coordinator, Printz said. Four sites closed because of staffing shortages.

“We’ve had to cap enrollment in the last few months in certain classes,” Vacha said

The Before and After School Enrichment program is serving 155 children. It has a capacity of 300, Printz said.

In the Head Start and Pre-K Counts programs, there are close to 90 openings for children, Prior said. Patterson believes the programs are not being fully utilized because parents are working from home and maybe not going back to work, even two years after the shutdowns occurred, Patterson said.

“Normally, we have a waiting list,” Patterson said. The agency serves about 600 children in its Head Start and Pre-K Counts programs.

Adding to the problem is that the federally funded Head Start has had to follow government guidelines for masking, and some people have not accepted those guidelines.

“A lot of the parents did not like that,” Patterson said.

The demand in the Alle-Kiski Valley has forced Head Start to add two sites in New Kensington and two others in Vandergrift, including one at a former church. Unlike other Head Start sites, there was a waiting list for children to enroll, Patterson said. Sites also were opened in the Trafford Elementary School and one in the Delmont area.

Head Start Vandergrift opened in January with reduced staffing but now is staffed fully with one full-time teacher and two part-time aides, said Roxanne Cava, Westmoreland Community Action’s Head Start area manager.

A cook is scheduled to start soon at the Vandergrift program, Cava said.

The New Kensington Head Start program remains understaffed, she said.

“We’re in need of a teacher, another aide, as well as a cook. We have some staff filling in but are looking for permanent staff,” Cava said.

Head Start is advertising weekly for open positions but typically not getting qualified applicants — “or the ones that are qualified schedule interviews and then don’t show up for them,” Cava said.

Wage pressures, mask mandates

Child care centers are competing for workers during a time when Westmoreland County’s labor force shrunk by 3,800 workers, according to state Labor & Industry data from December 2020 to December 2021 adjusted for seasonal hiring factors.

That means they are competing with the wages offered by corporations with deep pockets such as McDonald’s and Walmart.

“We can’t keep up with some of them” in terms of wage hikes, Patterson said.

Another ongoing problem, said Berger at JB’s Bright Beginnings, is that child care centers tend to be a steppingstone for teachers entering the field. Education majors often look to be hired by a school district, which offers competitive salaries, benefits, pension plans and a nine-month work year.

“That’s tough to compete with,” Berger said.

If child care centers raise wages, there is pressure to raise rates for children to attend.

“Private-pay families are already paying more than they can afford. We have to consider other ways to draw in and retain staff,” Berger said.

An unexpected ramification of the rising wages is that while a parent’s standard of living improves with higher wages, they find themselves disqualified from using a program such as Head Start that serves income-eligible families, Patterson said.

Child care programs need a solution that can “somehow encompass early education centers under an umbrella to offer adequate compensation, increased paid time off, health insurance, retirement options and benefits under a state- or federal-wide program,” Berger said. That would entice new hires to stay in the early education field, she said.

“The pandemic has now shed light on this crisis, so we need to take this opportunity to work toward a long-term solution,” Berger said.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s recently released 2022-23 budget was “really disappointing to us” because it did not add money for child care programs, DeBell said.

The state has federal funds through the American Rescue Plan that it could spend to help child care operations to ease staff shortages, said David John, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania State Alliance of YMCAs.

“The pay is not what we would like it to be,” John said. If one parent must remain home with a young child, “there is a ripple effect” in the labor force and the family’s household income.

Not to support child care programs is a mistake, DeBell said.

“It is the industry that keeps all others running,” she said.

John does not see any relief on the horizon.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “I don’t think there is a quick fix.”

Staff writer Joyce Hanz contributed.

Author: Joe NapshaPublication: Trib Live