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Business & Economy

Central Ohio Child Care Operators Describe Industry In Crisis

Whitehall Kids Academy is still struggling to hire workers nearly two years into the pandemic.
Matthew Rand
Whitehall Kids Academy is still struggling to hire workers nearly two years into the pandemic.

For years, the child care industry has struggled to attract and retain good workers. The pandemic has fanned the problem into a crisis.

Across the country, parents and especially moms, have put off returning to work because they have not been able to find affordable, adequate child care.

The National Women’s Law Center estimates more than 1.6 million moms have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic.

"It’s surreal. it's almost like living in a movie at this point,” said April Thompson, director of Whitehall Kids Academy, LLC.

Thompson said the center recently had to close for two weeks due to an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility.

"People are worried," Thompson said. "Are our kids safe? Is the place clean? Are we are they following the proper metrics as far as cleanliness so that I know that our kid is safe when kids do get sick, are they sent home?”

April Thompson, director of Whitehall Kids Academy
Matthew Rand
April Thompson, director of Whitehall Kids Academy

As we began our conversation, the phone rang. It's a parent asking about enrolling their child.

Thompson apologized and said that due to staffing shortages, the center can't accept any new students.

Thompson ended the call and explained the center is trying to hire two more teachers, but it's been a challenge.

She told me about one recent prospective hire that didn't work out.

“She said she's ready to work, we went and got her fingerprints done, and we paid for them. And then she didn't come back," Thompson said. "I got that she's okay to work with kids. But however, we don't have her here, and we haven't heard back from her.”

It's not just Whitehall Kids Academy hurting for teachers.

A recent survey by the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers (OACCP) found that 95% of their more than 600 member centers had staff openings.

OACCP Executive director Mary Ann Rody said the situation is critical.

“They can't just say, well, we'll just put all these kids in one room and we'll just run with one or two people," Rody said. "We aren't allowed to do that.”

Nationally, the child care industry is down 126,700 workers, a more than 10% drop from before the pandemic.

Pay could be a factor.

Bill LaFayette, owner of the Columbus-based economic consulting firm Regionomics, said the average wage for a child care worker in central Ohio last year was $12.47 an hour.

“These folks are making starvation wages," LaFayette said. "And so meanwhile, you had distribution centers going great guns paying $18, $20 an hour.”

Losing workers to other, more lucrative industries has many child care providers facing tough choices.

“One out of five providers in Franklin County anticipates that they may have to close within three months. And most of them are not bringing in the revenue needed to cover expenses, almost two-thirds are in that position," said Eric Karolak, CEO of Action for Children, a central Ohio child care resource and referral agency.

“The work of childcare is nothing short of brain-building," Karolak said. "And yet, as much as we have asked of child care providers over this pandemic, we still have not really shown the reward recognition and respect that this field deserves."

President Biden wants to expand access to child care and provide universal pre-K as part of his social spending package, which is still being negotiated in Congress.

“When you give working families a break, we're not just raising their quality of life. We're positioning our country to compete in the future," Biden said earlier this month.

Rody said she is excited by the proposal.

“We're very excited that that has taken a place of priority in his administration," Rody said.

April Thompson told me she wants people to understand that child care workers like her are frontline workers and deserve greater respect.

"We aren't just sitting here looking at kids, but we are essentially like being a parent to them. We're trying to teach them values that we would think a parent would treat would teach them so just as much as they want their kids to be successful, so do we," Thompson said. "We're not just babysitters, but we're educators."

Corrected: November 11, 2021 at 9:40 AM EST
An earlier version of this story had Eric Karolak's name misspelled.
Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.