When the Boise School District shut down in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began, Melissa Buck’s enrollment at the Vista Montessori School child care center went from 45 children to 12.
She normally fields five to 10 inquiries a week for enrollment and quotes a yearlong waitlist for potential children from infants to age 5, but zero calls or emails came in between March and July. Even now, as COVID-19 case numbers fall in Idaho and more vaccines are administered, enrollment at Vista Montessori is only up to 32 children.
To keep the center running and to avoid decreasing the wages of her staff, Buck and her husband dipped into their personal savings over the course of the year. Once funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out, her business started to receive monthly child care support grants of $5,000 from CARES Act stimulus money, which Buck said was a game changer.
“We’ve been getting those monthly grants, and those have helped tremendously,” she said.
But those grants, and wage enhancement funding that Buck and other child care providers say is crucial to their survival, are still in question. The funding is part of the annual budget for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which continues to hang in the balance in the Legislature.
Local providers say federal funding is key to survival
The Idaho House of Representatives voted the budget down by a vote of 27-42 in early April after questioning nearly $34 million in federal funding from a supplemental stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress in December. According to recent Idaho Capital Sun reporting, legislators took issue with the 28.8% increase in federal dollars, saying it was a “sizable amount of money” and questioning how many providers would apply for the grants.
The funding would assist with the continuation of $5,000 monthly grants for licensed child care providers and provide wage enhancements for child care center staffers.
Robin Findl, owner of Kids Choice Child Care and Preschool centers in Boise and Meridian, said the wage enhancement is particularly important because she can’t keep staff at the current $9 to $10 per hour wage for day care workers. Findl said she has already raised rates in an attempt to keep staff, but she doesn’t want to keep putting that burden on parents.
“I started losing my good staff because they’re going to Amazon, and I cannot compete with that,” Findl said, referring to the Amazon distribution center that opened in Nampa in November 2020. Jobs at the distribution center start at $15 per hour with benefits. “We’re not supposed to be an entry level job where a teenager comes in and we’re going to train you.”
Findl said legislators who voted against the funding are ignorant of what is actually happening in the child care industry, especially as the Treasure Valley continues to grow and housing costs rise.
“When my teachers have to quit and give me notice, they’re in tears. … I’ve lost three staff (members) right now because they can’t find housing here in Boise or Meridian, so they have to go all the way out to Caldwell or Kuna or deep into Nampa,” Findl said. “So then they’re going to drive here for $9 or $10 an hour? It’s not going to happen.”
Cutting funding could push child care services ‘underground’
The wage enhancement consists of $27.6 million in federal funding that will equate to an increase of about $2 to $3 per hour for child care workers. Officials with the Department of Health and Welfare have stated that money will not continue in perpetuity because it is part of federal stimulus money, but it can help providers stay afloat and retain staff until enrollment numbers fully recover.
Lori Fascilla, executive director of Giraffe Laugh child care centers in Boise, said she knows of over 200 providers in Idaho that have closed since last year. Had she not been able to fundraise through the organization’s nonprofit status, Fascilla said the centers likely would have closed.
“That would’ve been 200 children across our three centers,” Fascilla said.
The Health and Welfare budget also includes dollars to help families with co-pays for child care if they meet income thresholds, which would be raised from 130% of the federal poverty level to 145%. Fascilla said without that, many people won’t be able to return to work, and that will disproportionately affect women and people of color.
“We have a waiting list of over 500 people looking for child care, and the sad part of that is only the wealthiest are going to be able to find something,” she said. “So many of my fellow providers have had to increase prices for additional (personal protective equipment), cleaning supplies and less children.”
Findl said if the Legislature cuts off the additional stimulus funding, one unintended consequence could be that more parents will turn to unlicensed providers, which she said is already happening.
“COVID is pushing child care underground. You are going to see more and more cases of children being abused or killed because nobody is monitoring (providers),” she said. “We get inspections, our parents have a place to call, you could call 211 and have us investigated. You can’t do that with unlicensed day care.”
The House of Representatives has yet to take up a revised version of the bill that reduces the overall full-time equivalent positions by five, but the amount of the $199 million budget for fiscal year 2022 remains the same.