Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane’s Child Care Crisis

Day-care providers warn of increasing shortage, consequences to employers

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-VIRGINIA THOMAS
Nicole Sohn, owner of Journey Discovery Center, says some day cares might not be able to reopen after COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted.

The child care industry was facing workforce shortages and high operating costs before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Spokane-area providers say the situation will grow more dire as people returning to work seek day care services from an industry that potentially is facing mass closures.

The result, some say, will be an increased shortage in licensed child-care providers, leading to higher fees and fewer available slots for children, leaving some parents with tough choices.

“It’s been a nightmare,” says Luc Jasmin III, owner of Parkview Early Learning Center, on Spokane’s North Side. “We were already operating off of thin margins. Now, we’re operating on a deficit.”

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee put the Stay Home, Stay Health order into place on March 25, he required child-care providers to take in children of essential workers only. The state Department of Health guidelines state that no more than 10 people, including children and providers, should be allowed in a single room in a child-care facility, resulting in smaller child-provider ratios.

Parkview typically serves about 113 children, Jasmin says; now, the early learning center serves about 35 children.

“I have to do basically first come, first served, because I can only have so many kids and staff in each of the rooms,” Jasmin says. “That’s caused a lot of lost revenue.”

According to nonprofit Childcare Aware Washington, 94 of 172 total child-care centers in Spokane County have closed temporarily due to the pandemic.

Nicole Sohn, who co-owns Journey Discovery Center, located at 110 W. Cataldo, says some centers might close permanently if they can’t survive the financial drought. 

“Most (centers) are concerned that they will not be able to remain open after the COVID pandemic,” Sohn says. “When families need and want to go back into the workforce, it is a great concern that they will not be able to access child care.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Journey Discovery Center served 89 children; it now serves about 12 children each day, Sohn says.

That number is beginning to rise as industry sectors slowly reopen and employees return to work.

“We are seeing a slight increase as we have opened up construction … and we’ve been hearing from parents about their anticipated return date to hopefully coincide with the phases,” Sohn says, referring to Gov. Inslee’s plan to reopen sections of the state economy in phases to allow economic recovery to begin. 

Jasmin says the existing shortage of options will worsen as some providers close while demand for child care increases as segments of the workforce return to work, and that’s likely to lead to some children being cared for by family members, neighbors, or other unlicensed caregivers.

“The reality of it is, people are going to have to put their kids in scenarios that aren’t ideal,” Jasmin says. “On top of that, you’re going to see a lot of people not be able to go to work, especially if they’re single parents and don’t have support systems around.”

A lack of child care also could prevent those who have lost their jobs from entering training or degree programs, says Amy Anderson, a director of government affairs for the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.

“We know some folks are not going to have jobs to go back to, and they need to be able to have the flexibility to go back into training programs,” Anderson says. “The federal government is already dumping a lot of money into worker retraining opportunities. But if people don’t have a place to take their children, they can’t take advantage of that.”

Family home-care providers, licensed child-care providers who care for children at the provider’s home, aren’t immune from the problems the big centers face.

Debbie Thurber, owner of Spokane Valley-based All Children of the World and president of the Eastern Washington Family Child Care Association, was licensed for 12 children before the pandemic. She received a special waiver from the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families that allows her to care for three additional children, but the waiver required her to hire a second employee.

The fees for each additional child aren’t enough to cover the second employee’s hourly wage, Thurber says.

“Am I going in the hole just trying to have enough adults to meet the needs of the children in care?” she wonders aloud.

Most family home care providers in the Spokane area have remained open, Thurber says, despite the risk of contracting COVID-19 from a child or parent. 

“I did what needed to be done to keep them all safe and to keep the parents from being more stressed, not knowing where their children are going to go and whether they’ll be safe there,” Thurber says.

The Department of Children, Youth, and Families has offered some relief to licensed providers in the form of grants. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, additional Child Care Development Block Grants were released to states. Washington child care providers receive a flat amount depending on the number of children the provider is licensed to care for, up to $14,000 for a provider that serves more than 100 children.

Jasmin says it’s not enough.

“I pay about $100,000 a month on just payroll,” he says. “The money that’s going to be allocated from DCYF is great and all, but in all reality, if I went and applied, I would only get about a tenth of my overall payroll.”

Many child care and early learning centers qualified for Paycheck Protection Program loans under the CARES Act, including Journey Discovery Center. Sohn says the facility received enough in PPP loans to cover eight weeks’ worth of payroll for its 18 full-time and five part-time employees.

With payroll covered, Sohn and co-owner Nikki Kinzer decided to offer families an 85% discount on tuition.

“We felt it was the best intended use for federal stimulus money,” Sohn says. “Currently, if they’re paying that 15%, then they are holding their spot, allowing those stimulus dollars to keep our business whole. We had some families that have voluntarily paid more to add extra support for our business, which has been immensely helpful and appreciated.”

Anderson says the Association of Washington Business has been watching closely to see whether and how state and city budget cuts will affect child care providers, and has been working with legislators for a few years to increase state child care subsidies. The organization also is lobbying for child care providers to be prioritized in future stimulus packages.

Advocating for child care has been missing from the agendas of many city and state organizations, says Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, which serves as the combined chamber of commerce and economic development agency for Spokane.

“One of the things that certainly has been missing is some of our advocacy to invest in child care and high-quality child care and access for all,” Benson says. “Those are things that are going to continue to be an important conversation as we think about economic recovery. As we’re working on regional economic recovery efforts, workforce support and child care is a key piece of that.”

Employers can provide some leeway for employees who struggle to find child care, Benson says.

“The employers that are going to do best in this time are those that are willing to be creative and work with their employees … whether it’s flexible work schedules or continued practices of doing more telework,” Benson says.

Jasmin says dozens of other Spokane-area day cares are suffering, and employers need to recognize that almost every company depends on accessible, affordable child care. Without it, some employees won’t be able to return to work as restrictions are lifted.

“This is hurting everyone,” he says. “It’s not just hurting child-care providers. It’s hurting the kids. It’s hurting the businesses that need employees to come in.”

He says employers should consider working with providers directly.

“It would be nice if businesses called some of the child-care centers around, especially ones that might be closed, to see how there can be some organic partnership,” Jasmin says.

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the banking and finance industries. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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