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San Diego child care centers struggle with staffing crisis

Even before COVID, it was difficult to hire child care staff because the positions are undervalued and poorly paid. Now, it’s nearly impossible. KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser looks at what is causing a childcare staffing crisis in the region.

This is the first part of a two-part series.

In May 2021, Ally had just graduated from SDSU with a degree in child and family development and in the market for her first job. She was hired immediately by a local preschool.

“This is the first and only job I applied to,” said Ally, who does not want to reveal her full name or the name of the school to protect her job.

But her college education did little to prepare her for what she ended up walking into.

First off, Ally was supposed to be joined by another teacher, which six months later still hasn’t happened. Instead, Ally and her classroom of toddlers are left with a rotating cast of substitute teachers. New teachers are in the classroom so often that the kids have to wear name tags.

And sometimes the subs themselves call in sick, or just don’t show up.

“It's really hard to implement a routine for them as much as I'm trying,” she said. “I've noticed how attached they are to me. And when other subs come in, it's kind of like stranger danger.”

RELATED: Taking stock of San Diego's economy amidst 'the great resignation'

Preschools and child care centers everywhere are dealing with a massive staffing shortage. Online job sites show more than 200 local child care openings—some even offering signing bonuses. For example, the YMCA of San Diego County, the largest child care provider in the county, is looking to fill more than 128 jobs, despite raising wages over the last year.

The problem is much worse than the general labor shortage trend. Child care jobs have historically been undervalued and poorly paid, and the pandemic has just piled on. Child care providers have to compete with retailers and restaurants for workers, but those other sectors can raise starting wages. Plus, people are still worried about catching COVID from unvaccinated toddlers.

Ally is making $15 an hour — minimum wage in San Diego. The low pay and stress made her feel like quitting soon after she started her job.

“But I think I've definitely become attached to the kids and I see how new faces really affect them every day and how the consistency of me being there every day has switched around a lot of behavioral problems,” she said. “So it makes it a little bit harder for me to want to just give up.”

Large disparities

The pay is almost universally low for child care workers in America—the majority of whom are women of color. On average in California, preschool teachers make less than half of what kindergarten teachers make. And more than a third of child care workers live below the federal poverty line.

People who run child care in their home also make the equivalent of $11 an hour, according to one study.

“We're asking so much for $12 an hour when you could be making more at McDonald's or Starbucks or Target, where you don't have to have to do such an emotionally demanding job,” said Caitlin McLean with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. “If we want to make sure that families have access to these services, we have to make sure that this is a good job that people want to do. And we have not been doing that.”

Kids listen to a teacher reading a book at Discovery Preschool in Oceanside, July 28, 2021.
Sally Chenoweth
Kids listen to a teacher reading a book at Discovery Preschool in Oceanside, July 28, 2021.

Raising pay for these workers might seem like an easy solution, but there’s a domino effect. Child care centers operate on razor-thin profit margins, so raising pay would mean raising rates for families. And the rates are already more than many families can afford—the average cost in San Diego County is $360 a week for infants and $304 a week for preschool.

A likely scenario is a vicious cycle in which child care centers raise rates and families drop out because they can’t pay them, said Holly Weber, the owner of Magic Hour Preschool in Mira Mesa.

“There's no way that I can continue to ask parents to pay out of pocket at a higher weekly rate than I already do, I'm already within market rate,” she said. “It's just running a fine line between parents choosing to not even go back to work because their child care expenses are so exorbitant.”

RELATED: Midday Edition Special: COVID-19 And The Child Care Crisis

Weber was looking to hire more staff in the fall, and paid to post ads on websites like ZipRecruiter. But the few responses she received were from people with little experience asking for $20 to $22 an hour— way beyond her payroll budget.

Lynn Twork, the CEO of Kids On The Go Family Service Center in Chula Vista, said she’s looking to expand and offer more spots to children.

“We have a waitlist, but we can't admit children until we have more staff to accommodate opening classrooms,” she said. “In the last almost two years now since the pandemic hit, we have had ads out constantly and the pool of qualified candidates is just so small, nobody's really applying for the positions.”

When she does receive applications, something strange happens—only one out of 10 applicants actually shows up to the first interview, Twork said.

“Which is shocking,” she said. “We're doing a lot of forward planning to have somebody come to the interview, it's like a big roller coaster ride. That's not fun.”

Twork said she was able to hire someone early on in the pandemic who seemed like a great fit.

“They were a great teacher,” she said. “They worked, I want to say, two days, and then they got scared of COVID. Because I think actually working on the ground is totally different than what the picture is. COVID guidelines have had a significant impact on the way we have to navigate teaching and caring for children.”

A teacher works at a San Diego preschool in this undated photo.
Claire Trageser
A teacher works at a San Diego preschool in this undated photo.

Lots of regulations, little assistance

One reason why child care centers have such thin profit margins is because they are so tightly regulated. There are fire safety codes, CPR requirements, and square footage requirements, all of which come with a cost. But the biggest cost is the number of teachers required per student.

San Diego child care centers struggle with staffing crisis

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Even before COVID it was difficult to hire childcare staff because the positions are undervalued and poorly paid. Now it's nearly impossible. K PBS investigative reporter, Claire Traeger looks at what's causing a childcare staffing crisis in the region

Speaker 2: (00:18)

In May, 2021. Our had just graduated from SDSU with a degree in child and family development and went looking for her first job. She was hired immediately by a local preschool. This

Speaker 3: (00:31)

Is the first and only job I applied to and it ended up working out. But

Speaker 2: (00:35)

Her college education did little to prepare her for what she ended up walking into.

Speaker 3: (00:41)

Technically I would have a co-teacher and we would split up the children six and six, but with where I'm at right now, I am keeping all 12 kids

Speaker 2: (00:50)

Together, six months into the job, Allie and her classroom of toddlers are left with a rotating cast of substitute teachers. Allie doesn't wanna reveal her full name or the name of her. Cool to protect her job.

Speaker 3: (01:03)

We put, um, name tags on the children so that we can help the subs, identify them. And they can actually refer, refer to them by

Speaker 2: (01:10)

Their name. Plus sometimes the subs themselves call in sick or just

Speaker 3: (01:15)

Don't show up. I've noticed how attached they are to me. And when other subs come in, that was a good job. Yeah. It's kind of like stranger danger,

Speaker 2: (01:27)

Preschools and childcare centers everywhere are dealing with a massive staffing shortage on job search websites. There are more than 200 local childcare openings. Some even offering signing bonuses, providers told K PBS, they can't find qualified people to hire. The problem is much worse than the general labor shortage trend childcare providers have to compete with retailers and restaurants for workers, but those other sectors can raise starting wages. Plus people are still worried about catching COVID UN vaccinated toddlers.

Speaker 4: (02:05)

We're asking so much for, you know, $12 an hour when you could be making more at

Speaker 2: (02:11)

McDonald's Caitlyn. McClean is with the center for the study of childcare employment at UC Berkeley. If

Speaker 4: (02:17)

We want to make sure that families have access to these services, we have to make sure that this is a good job that people want to do. And we have not been

Speaker 2: (02:27)

Doing that on average, California preschool teachers make less than half of what kindergarten teachers make. And more than a third of childcare workers live below the federal poverty line. Raising pay for these workers might seem like an easy solution, but there's a domino of first off state regulations require childcare centers to have one teacher for every four infants and one for every six toddlers, which means a lot of staff. So if they pay more, they'd have no choice, but to raise rates for parents, which many can't afford

Speaker 5: (03:01)

There, there's no way that I can, um, continue to ask parents to pay out of pocket, um, at a higher weekly rate than I already do. I'm already within market

Speaker 2: (03:12)

Rate. Holly Weber owns magic hour preschool in Mira Mesa. It's just

Speaker 5: (03:16)

Running a fine line between parents choosing to not even go back to work because their childcare expenses are so exorbitant

Speaker 6: (03:24)

People of course are gonna apply to jobs where you aren't being recognized

Speaker 2: (03:29)

Like Ali, Brianna Mendoza also recently graduated from SDSU with an early childhood education degree, but she has no interest in where working at a preschool. She instead is looking at jobs where she would work one on one with children in crisis, which would pay 21 to $22 an hour.

Speaker 6: (03:48)

I mean, you are constantly like running. I'm telling you like I would be sweating in the classrooms. Like whether I was changing diapers, carrying babies, feeding them sweeping, like it wasn't as childcare in there. It was like sweeping like housework.

Speaker 2: (04:03)

Meanwhile, Allie who is solo teaching at a local preschool is trying to hold on, but isn't sure how long she wants to continue considering

Speaker 3: (04:12)

I'm doing the job of two teachers right now at minimum wage. It's really discouraging.

Speaker 1: (04:21)

Joining me is K PBS, investigative reporter, Claire Trieger and Claire. Welcome.

Speaker 2: (04:26)

Thank you.

Speaker 1: (04:27)

Now the impact of the staffing shortages is apparently making preschool work much more difficult, but what is it doing to the preschools themselves? I mean, are the schools turning away? New kids are some closing up entirely.

Speaker 2: (04:42)

Yes. Uh, definitely to both. Um, you know, there's been a number of schools that have had to close during the pandemic and then something that I'm hearing a lot now is that they would like to expand. They'd like to be able to have more classrooms and help more kids, uh, take in more kids. And they just can't because they can't hire enough staff to fill those classrooms. So definitely a problem of, uh, lack of access for more kids who are wanting to go back to preschools right now,

Speaker 1: (05:13)

It sounds like even before the pandemic, the entire preschool sector existed by underpaying teachers and now that's just an not working anymore. Is that one way to look at it?

Speaker 2: (05:25)

Um, sort of, I mean, I think that yes, preschool teachers have always been underpaid and under undervalued. Um, you know, it's a position that doesn't have as much respect necessarily from general society as, as maybe like elementary school teachers. And, you know, there's just a, a massive labor shortage going on everywhere right now. And so it's kind of really built up the problem where if you're looking at maybe a retail job that can increase its pay for, for employees and someone's looking to turn back, return back to work, they might go and, and be more interested in, in one of those jobs that pays more than, uh, a childcare job, even if you know their passion or what they really enjoy is, is childcare.

Speaker 1: (06:15)

And what kind of an education background do childcare staff need?

Speaker 2: (06:20)

Well, it varies to do a family home based childcare. You don't need any educational background. You do need a number of, uh, trainings and certificates like CPR training, things like that. Um, and then for, uh, for more state funded programs, you might actually need a bachelor's degree. Some private preschools just prefer that in, in applicants. And then, um, most preschool teachers need 12 college credits. So you do need at least some level of, um, of college classes to be able to teach at a preschool.

Speaker 1: (06:55)

Can you give us a little more background on, on why childcare facilities feel they can't raise staff salaries to a living wage?

Speaker 2: (07:05)

Right? So childcare facilities, they have a lot of government, uh, oversight and, and restrictions, which makes sense. You know, you don't want people to be able to do whatever they want when you're dealing with, with babies and toddlers. And so one of the big ones is the ratio. So for babies, you need, um, one teacher for every four babies. And then for slightly older kids, you need, uh, one teacher for every say, six toddlers. And that means you just need to have way more staff than you would in akin garden, where you might have one teacher with 20 kids or something like that. And those staff, they cost a lot because they have benefits and, um, pay. And so even if the pay is, is lower, it's still very expensive for schools to have all of the staff. And so they operate on really thin profit margins.

Speaker 2: (07:58)

And so if they need to increase the pay of their staff, they're going to then need to increase the cost to families. But as you know, most families would tell you daycare or preschools childcare are already, you know, barely affordable. And so even if you raise their cost by say a hundred dollars a month, that might make it make a difference for, for families where they're gonna say, you know what? I can't even afford to send my kid to, to preschool. I'm going to stay home and take care of them anyways, or I'm gonna, you know, find another solution or whatever it is. So the center's risk losing customers if they raise their price even just a little bit.

Speaker 1: (08:41)

And when we speak about staff, isn't it mostly women who are underpaid in these childcare jobs.

Speaker 2: (08:49)

Yes, it's 94% of the industry, uh, are women. And a lot of them are women of color.

Speaker 1: (08:57)

Now what could be the ramifications on the workforce if childcare costs go

Speaker 2: (09:02)

Up? Right? So, I mean, I touched on this a little bit, but it, it could mean that there are far more, especially, you know, unfortunately women who stay home to, to take care of kids because they say, you know, we just can't afford this. And especially if you have maybe more than one kid, you're gonna say, I'm just gonna quit my job. I'm gonna stay home because the childcare cost is more expensive than what I'm actually getting paid. Um, and so it would really, you know, continue to remove when from the workforce

Speaker 1: (09:37)

Now, Claire, this is the first of a two part report that you're doing on childcare staffing. What do you cover in tomorrow's report?

Speaker 2: (09:45)

Well, yeah, today kind of laid out what seems like a really impossible problem. Um, and tomorrow I'm going to look at some potential solutions. Unfortunately the biggest one seems to depend on Congress doing something at the federal level, which, um, may be difficult. Um, but then also looking at, uh, there's talk of a local ballot measure that might address the problem and some state, uh, state solutions as well.

Speaker 1: (10:12)

I've been speaking with KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire trier, Claire. Thank you.

Speaker 2: (10:17)

Thank you so much.

Unlike in an elementary school, where a teacher can be alone with a large room of kids, child care centers in California must have one teacher for every four infants and one for every six toddlers, which means a lot of staff. Up to 80% of the total expenses at child care centers are teacher pay and benefits, according to a survey from the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance. Centers often use the older classes to subsidize the cost of running infant classrooms, but the recent move to bring universal transitional kindergarten to California will upset that balance.

Despite being so highly regulated, the child care industry receives limited government subsidies or other assistance. There’s no child care insurance or public support for most for people who have to pay for early care and preschool, said Donna Sneeringer, the chief strategy officer at the Sacramento-based nonprofit Child Care Resource Center.

RELATED: Universal transitional kindergarten could bring relief to parents, but threatens child care providers

Like Ally, Briana Mendoza also recently graduated from SDSU with an early childhood education degree. But she has no interest in working at a preschool. She instead is looking at jobs where she would work one-on-one with children in crisis, which would pay $21 to $22 an hour.

“People aren’t going to apply to jobs where you aren't being recognized,” she said. At a child care center, “I mean, you are constantly running. I'm telling you, I would be sweating in the classrooms, whether I was changing diapers, carrying babies, feeding them, sweeping. It wasn't just child care in there. It was sweeping, housework, doing laundry.”

Meanwhile, Ally, who is solo teaching at a local preschool, is trying to hold on, but isn’t sure how long she wants to continue.

“Considering I'm doing the job of two teachers right now at minimum wage, it's really discouraging,” she said.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the federal Build Back Better bill and how it would address the child care staffing problem, plus other efforts to make changes in San Diego County.

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