As child care options dwindle, Kansas advocates seek funding to address staffing shortages

By: - September 15, 2021 8:47 am

As the demand for care increases in Kansas, child care workers are leaving the field or the state amid long hours and poor pay. Kansas advocates are hoping lawmakers will provide long-term funding solutions to address the growing worker shortage. (Kansas State Alliance of YMCAs)

TOPEKA — Lack of accessible child care often pushes Kansas families to leave their children with overworked or unlicensed caregivers. Amid a growing workforce shortage exacerbated by the pandemic, child care advocates say there is an immediate need for long-term solutions.

Throughout the last decade, the number of family child care providers across Kansas has decreased as many struggle to retain staff. Low wages and long hours have pushed many child care workers to leave for more lucrative opportunities in other states or other fields.

Linda Logan is a program director for Kansas Child Care Training Opportunities and has spent 40 years in the child care field. She has held positions ranging from director of child care centers to being a preschool teacher, which provides her a national and local perspective on workforce issues she said required action long before the pandemic.

Even as parents return to work, many areas of Kansas are running low on child care slots, Logan said. Without a place for their children, many parents turn to an unregulated market for child care services.

“It is against the law in Kansas to provide unlicensed care. We call it unregulated, but it’s everywhere,” Logan said. “That’s the scary part for me is that parents will choose a neighbor, someone down the block, someone who’s just offering to watch children for $1 an hour. Those are all red flags that it is not going to be quality child care.”

As of last year, 16 Kansas counties had no child care openings for infants or toddlers. Logan and fellow advocates say lawmakers must step up and provide permanent funding to ensure child care centers can be fully staffed and avoid closure.

A 2020 needs assessment update conducted by the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund showed child care workers in Kansas make just $10.20 an hour, well behind the $28 hourly wage for the average elementary school teacher. The poverty rate for early educators in Kansas is 19.7%, higher than the 10.2% rate for other workers in Kansas.

Per the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index, Kansas is “stalled” in the areas of compensation and financial relief strategies for the early childhood workforce. The state does not have parity or a public funding earmark for early childhood care and education professional salaries, in comparison with K-12 educators.

Many full and part-time workers lack benefits, with only about 30% of these Kansas workers receiving sick and vacation leave. About 15% of child care center employees in Kansas receive no benefits.

“Currently, there are zero child care facilities in Allen County that offer health insurance as part of their hiring package,” said one respondent to the 2020 assessment.

Another respondent said they “are not able to increase the target area of underserved populations” because they “cannot strengthen and retain our workforce,”

Attracting and retaining a younger workforce is critical because significant turnover, partly due to anticipated retirements, is expected in the coming years. Approximately 45% of the family child care provider workforce is older than 50, which is of particular concern in rural and frontier counties where family child care providers are the primary option.

Even with all this information, there are still gaps in data available to those attempting to get a handle on where help is needed most. That is because Kansas does not have a statewide registry of workers in the child care or early education sectors.

That’s something Logan is working on as chairwoman of the KCCTO Workforce Development Advisory Group alongside state agency representatives and practitioners from across the state. The registry will focus on where child care workers are receiving training, how long they are staying in the field and more.

Logan said she hopes more complete data will lead to further investment in child care.

“Economists have proven with research over the last 20 years that investment in early childhood does make a difference,” Logan said. “We have to reframe how we look at child care and the workforce and really everything that evolves into that.”

Last month, Gov. Laura Kelly announced a new program to connect Kansas parents seeking employment with child care services. Those searching for a job through a state workforce center in 62 pilot counties will have access to about $500,000 in funds.

In addition, Child Care Aware of Kansas has partnered with the Kansas Department for Children and Families to bring $49 million in financial support for child care program operators. Sustainability grants ranging from $5,000 for family child care providers and up to $60,000 for large child care centers were made available to any licensed program in Kansas.

John Mikos, president of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, said these funds were intended for child care operations expenses not already covered through other aid sources going back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the grants came as a relief, he said many have already used up these funds and are left to tackle the problem of how to pay employees going forward.

Mikos said any step toward economic recovery for the state must include investment in early childhood education.

If getting Kansas parents back to work is needed to spur on the economy “then how are we going to figure this out if those families can’t find a place to put their child?” Mikos said. “I don’t think there’s a single story or angle that you can look at that doesn’t show that anything related to child care is a stimulus to help toward economic development.”

In Kansas City, child care slots are increasingly scarce, but it’s not only city centers struggling to keep up with demand, said Jennifer Bruning, executive director for the Kansas Alliance of YMCAs. She said Central and Western Kansas child care providers have always been understaffed and overworked.

Bruning said of all YMCAs in areas most affected by shortages, only Salina appears to be doing all right from a staffing perspective. Still, the only other child care facility in the area closed recently due to a shortage, so the city is not immune to these difficulties.

“To be honest I kind of feel that child care work ended up kind of being the forgotten essential worker,” Bruning said. “There needs to be a permanent public investment at the state and federal level rather than one-time government support for future payroll purposes if we are going to address this permanently.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.