Local child care providers struggle to balance financial realities and parental needs

The child care crisis is plaguing every corner of America. Parents are unable to find affordable day care, face years-long waiting lists, and are struggling to find providers that meet their unique needs. But what if all those parental woes were a symptom of a larger problem — the symptom of a floundering business model?

“It takes a toll on you — especially if you look at the hours we work, for fewer benefits and typically less pay,” said Tracy Dawson on a phone call with The Daily World.

Dawson is one of the scarce child care providers in Grays Harbor County, operating Tracy’s Tikes Day Care & Preschool in Montesano and Tracy’s Tikes Early Learning Center in Aberdeen.

Between both locations, she works about 110 hours a week. By her calculation, that puts her hourly compensation far below minimum wage.

“I do this for a different reason, this is a more personal thing for me,” she said. “We’re hoping to get nonprofit status, but if things don’t change this industry won’t be able to continue.”

Operating a child care facility is a business with slim margins. After the coronavirus pandemic and shifting requirements for child care providers, it seems those who remain have to be motivated, at least partially, by some sense of altruism.

But even for Dawson, who launched an in-home day care in Montesano in 2009, belief in the importance of her work may not be enough.

“The problem we see is that this industry is very emotionally draining,” she said. “We see so many children come from trauma, abuse, and neglect — especially in the Aberdeen facility.”

Tracy’s Tikes Early Learning Center in Aberdeen opened in October 2021 to serve toddler and preschool-age children. The impetus for the new facility arose when another child care provider operating in the current space announced their closure, a move that would cost the county close to 100 child care slots.

Those are 100 slots the community could not afford to lose.

According to Gary Burris, Executive Director of the Child Care Action Council, Grays Harbor County had 69 child care sites in 2012, for a total of 1,506 available spots. In 2022, the county has just 39 sites and 934 spots, or a 38 percent decrease in overall capacity. This decrease comes at a time when the pandemic and other factors have spurred growth and demographic changes throughout the Harbor.

“One of the dilemmas is that the providers can only charge what they feel like they can get from parents, and that often barely covers child care costs and the minimum salary they pay themselves. It’s not a largely profitable business, and a lot of the time it only works when a spouse stays at home or was already going to stay home with their own children,” said Burris.

When Dawson opened her new facility in Aberdeen, she hired six new employees. The process of finding passionate individuals who are willing to remain in a struggling industry, however, has proven difficult for most employers.

According to Dawson, employees only have to take one major child care class and pass a series of minor requirements. Within five years, employees must finish three college courses or college course equivalents. Then in the next two years they must complete two more.

“Often we get them through all their trainings, and then they leave and join the school district because we just can’t offer those benefits and peace of mind compared to what we see,” she said.

For Linda Poplin, who runs Tugboat Granny’s Childcare and Preschool in Ocean Shores and has more than 30 years experience in the early childhood field, wages and benefits have been some of the greatest challenges since she opened in 1995. It has been difficult for her to strike a balance between affordable rates for parents and offering a competitive job package to potential employees.

“There is no doubt the system is backwards because child care teachers provide safety, nurturing, and educational services for our communities most valuable and vulnerable populations — spending more than eight to 10 hours a day with a child–and they cannot get paid enough for their value to the service they provide,” she said in an email to The Daily World.

“If a child care provider could afford to pay their staff a higher wage and give benefits to which they are deserving, then rates would have to increase, and parents are struggling as is to have affordable child care.”

State licensing requirements for early learning programs will require center lead teachers to have an Early Childhood Certificate or equivalent by Aug. 1, 2026. Completing such a certification would qualify candidates for higher-paying jobs with local school districts, like as a Paraprofessional, therefore making it less likely that they would choose to remain in the child care industry.

Stephanie Smith, Executive Director of Learning to Grow Inc. in Elma, has faced staffing challenges as she looks to expand to two new locations.

“People who go into child care education in general, and especially those that stay, are far more purpose-driven about their jobs than payment-driven,” she said. “My priority is to do everything we can to help them have as healthy a paycheck as possible, but we also support them to make sure they feel like they’re making a meaningful difference in children’s lives.”

Smith employs just shy of 30 staff members at her current facility, and anticipates employing about 25 more when the new facility opens in collaboration with Abundant Life Church in Elma.

The site, which is slated to open in 2023 and will serve approximately 100 children from infants to school-age, was funded by a $752,000 Early Learning Facilities (ELF) grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce that was awarded in 2020.

On April 5, Smith was notified again by the Department of Commerce that they were awarded a $1 million grant for which they applied in December 2021. The funding will be used to construct a new child care center in Montesano on a city-owned property adjacent to Washington State Route 8.

According to Smith, the city will lease the site to Learning to Grow for a new day care facility that is anticipated to serve approximately 75 infant through school-age children. While the project is still in its initial planning stages, Smith expects the site to open in 2024.

According to Smith, finding the appropriate site for another child care facility was a bit of a Cinderella’s glass slipper situation. Due to strict standards on children to space ratios and other requirements, many buildings just didn’t fit.

“To find properties that are licensed is nearly impossible; a lot of our communities have old, empty buildings that aren’t licensable. It’s very expensive to find a location, and building a child care center that meets all of the state codes is pretty daunting, and that is why the state has put in a considerable amount of money into the ELF — to try and offset the cost,” she said.

“If you were maybe a bigger corporation, you probably have a bigger budget stream, but with who we have on the Harbor, these are typically personal owners and it’s a huge liability to come up with $2 million to start, and it’s just not feasible for most people.”

ELF grants and mentorship programs have helped diminish the barriers potential child care providers face when starting up, but they still fall short in overcoming the gap that was exacerbated by the pandemic. According to Burris, the state only awards 15-20 ELF grants a year, leaving many providers to fend for themselves.

Despite some state assistance, many providers in Grays Harbor County are still forced to reckon with the sustainability of operating a child care facility from both a financial and mental perspective.

Dawson is able to go through the union in order to get insurance coverage, but she is still left with no unemployment or retirement benefits while working well below minimum wage.

“If there’s not a shift in compensation for providers, we’re going to see an even bigger problem than we’re seeing now,” she said.

Poplin is wondering — “Where do we go from here?” — after temporary assistance has failed to alleviate more serious concerns her, staff, and parents have about the future of the business.

Some relief is possible from the state government after the 2021 Washington Legislature passed a capital gains tax that could fund the expansion of affordability of child care. The legislation creates a 7 percent tax on the sale or exchange of long-term capital assets, but was declared unconstitutional and invalid by the Douglas County Superior Court on March 1. The state has appealed the ruling to the Washington Supreme Court.

While potential funding remains tied up in legal challenges, providers may find support closer to home. Lynnette Buffington, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor (GGH) and recent appointment to the Child Care Collaborative Task Force by Gov. Jay Inslee, is working to offer a grant program through GGH to help child care providers sustain their business.

“We are looking at who is out there that wants to start, but just needs support and the money to do so,” she said. “I want providers to have the resources to expand and enhance their facilities, and I really want to look at the health of the business.”

According to Buffington, additional grant avenues may also be used as a recruitment tool to attract candidates that will stay in the child care industry.

“Grants are finite,” she said. “This problem is not unique to our community, but our solution may be unique.”

Editor’s note: This story is a part of a two-part series on the state of child care accessibility in Grays Harbor County. Part two, on the threat that the child care crisis poses on the local economy, will be available in the Saturday, April 23, edition of The Daily World.