The North's Childcare Crisis
Child care deserts and months-long waiting lists are pushing northern Michigan’s day care situation to a crisis point.
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 27, 2018
Lack of professional childcare is a crisis in northern Michigan that’s tantamount to the affordable housing shortage. Unlike housing, however, the childcare shortage disproportionately affects women.
In Traverse City, there are months-long waiting lists for childcare for infants and toddlers. In rural areas, there are childcare deserts where the closest licensed provider is dozens of miles away.
“Where do I start? We are a disaster area,” said Bob McNabb, a first-year Frankfort city council member who made childcare a platform of his campaign. “Certified, qualified, safe, secure — that kind of childcare, unless you have it within your family, is very hard to find, especially for zero-to-three-year-old kids.”
People expect childcare to be cheap, and most aren’t willing, or cannot afford, to pay too much for it. That’s made it a low-paying profession, one that only someone completely dedicated to children would go into, said Mary Manner, collaboration coordinator for the Great Start program in Traverse City.
Low wages, on top of state regulations that keep childcare providers spending and scrambling to adhere, has made childcare a scarce commodity.
“It’s expensive, especially for infant care, because the ratio of caregiver to infants [1 to 4] is small,” Manner said. “If you want to pay a living wage to that one person who is taking care of those four infants, care is going to be in excess of $10,000 a year.”
There are other problems that feed the region’s childcare crisis, she said. As the economy improves, childcare workers are drawn to jobs that offer better hours and better pay. More and more, as regulations have tightened, operators of home-based daycares have gotten out of the business rather than making improvements required by the state.
Manner recalled one childcare provider who worked out of her home had to close when she was told the risers on her stairs were too steep.
“They basically said you have to remodel your stairs, and she couldn’t afford to do it,” Manner said. “It’s these things that make sense from a code perspective, but in reality, don’t make a lot of sense.”
Manner said that, in recent years, regulators have become less adversarial and more helpful with providers, in part because the increased regulations have caused a lot of childcare to go underground.
“They’re just not getting licensed,” Manner said. “They’re just taking care of kids without licensing, so they’re just avoiding the whole thing.”
Offering unlicensed daycare is a crime that carries stiff penalties, including jail, though Manner cannot recall a case that’s resulted in that. It is legal for an unlicensed provider to care for children in the child’s home, or for a relative to care for children in the relative’s home, but it’s illegal for an unlicensed provider to take children into their own home.
Nonetheless, there apparently isn’t a lot of enforcement.
On Craigslist recently, one person advertised their “unlicensed” daycare. After the person was contacted by a reporter and asked for an interview, the ad disappeared.
BENZIE’S SUBTERRANEAN UNDERGROUND
McNabb, who also owns Bayside Printing in Frankfort, said lack of childcare forces people find solutions that are not ideal.
Today, McNabb provides childcare for his daughter’s fourth child at his business. He also helped her out with her first three.
But not everyone has family to fall back on. Lack of childcare that’s affordable for working people is part of a larger cycle that keeps people — especially single women — struggling in northern Michigan.
If a father doesn’t stick around to help, mothers in need of childcare typically work two or three jobs in order to survive, McNabb said. The underground economy that’s pervasive across northern Michigan, especially in rural areas, where men plow driveways or do odd jobs for cash, furthers the struggle for working single mothers, because when they attempt to collect child support, the father’s income is not recorded.
“Too many baby daddies bail out on the responsibilities. I’ve got a hundred anecdotal stories about this stuff,” McNabb said. “Go to family court and pay attention to what’s going on — there is a subterranean, underground, off-book economy that permeates northern Michigan.”
In Frankfort, the only significant childcare provider is Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, but it doesn’t come close to fulfilling all of the demand, especially when it comes to infant care.
That leaves people to improvise.
“The young mothers who are otherwise beset by the chaos of trying to get by, so that they can work the piss-poor jobs that they need just to get by, they are getting together in small groups, and they are helping each other,” he said. “They’ve arranged little cabals to help take care of each other’s children.”
On the city council, McNabb helped start a task force to look at childcare. He also sits on a committee that is working to create a community center. He hopes that the community center will include a daycare.
IMPORTANCE OF STABLE CARE
No one know how many unlicensed daycare operators there are in northern Michigan. Manner said she knows it is a significant number.
“We think there’s a 40 percent gap in infant and toddler care in our communities, based on the number of people in the workforce and the number of infants and toddlers that there are. We can only account for about 60 percent of them in licensed care,” she said. “So they are somewhere.”
Some mothers stay home. Other children, no doubt, are with relatives. Some parents juggle schedules so that one works days and the other works nights and weekends so that someone is always available to watch the kids.
“Lots of people are in a situation where one day it’s the neighbor, and the next day it’s the person down the street, and the next day it’s a friend across town, and the next day they actually have to take their kid to work with them,” Manner said. “So we wind up in this situation where there isn’t that kind of predictable, constant care. It makes a huge difference in children’s social and emotional development.”
That’s dangerous for child development, Manner said, because young children, especially in the first 18 months, need stable care from familiar faces. Many people also undervalue childcare’s role in a child’s development. Good childcare, she said, is not the mere warehousing of children.
“When you think of all of the things that a child learns from birth to the day they enter kindergarten, they learn to talk and walk and interact with people and manipulate their environment. Feed themselves. Clothe themselves,” she said. “I mean, they learn everything that you need to know to be a functioning human being in the first five years.”
DEDICATION TO CHILDREN REQUIRED
Childcare providers agree that it is a difficult and undervalued business. You’ve got to be dedicated to children in order to survive.
Carly LaFreniere, administrator at the Bayview Child Care Center and Pre-School in Traverse City, has been in childcare for 20 years and said she’s seen the regulations get more onerous over the years, forcing people out of business.
“In Traverse City, we obviously do not have enough centers, and I think the reason we don’t have enough centers is because the licensing rules are just so ridiculous,” she said.
For instance, LaFreniere just licensed a new building in September, a process she found dumbfounding and frustrating. The newly opened daycare cannot use one of their upstairs rooms because its windows are rated to keep out fire for 20 minutes, not the required 30 minutes. A fix would cost $4,000.
Bayview has a waiting list for the infant/toddler program, and the preschool program is filling up and close to the point of having a waiting list, she said.
“Parents that move from downstate or another area, they are surprised,” LaFreniere said. “Parents from Traverse City, they know as soon as you find out you are pregnant, you get on a waiting list.”
Beth Fryer and her daughter-in-law Anna Fryer run the Teddy Bear Day Care and Pre-School at two locations, one in Long Lake Township and the other at a new location on 14th Street in Traverse City.
“If you’re downtown, you pretty much have only two childcare center options within a close vicinity, and then those are full,” Anna Fryer said. “Pretty much anywhere you go, there is a wait list for infants and toddlers.”
Anna Fryer said she and her mother-in-law pay themselves less so that they can pay their childcare workers above-average wages.
What’s frustrating to people who work in childcare is the disconnect between the esteem the job holds in society and the impact their work has on human development.
“It’s not a moneymaker by any means, because, again, we’re not recognized as being as important as we are,” said Anna Fryer, who has worked in childcare for 17 years.
“What we know that the studies have shown is that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are by far the most important days,” said Beth Fryer, who has worked in childcare for 34 years. “So we take our jobs very seriously and make sure that we expose all our children to as many wonderful experiences as we can.
PROBLEM FOR EMPLOYERS
Lack of childcare is also a problem for employers, who find they have trouble retaining female employees after the birth of a child.
Coco Champagne, senior vice president of human resources at Hagerty, said her company has gone to great lengths to make life easy for new parents. They offer paid maternity and paternity leave, they offer graduated return-to-work hours so that employees can transition back into full-time work, and they offer a wellness program for new parents.
That doesn’t solve how hard it is for parents to find childcare once they return to work, however.
Champaign said she is working with other business and community leaders to bring more childcare to Traverse City after Hagerty determined it would not be cost-effective to open an in-house daycare.
“It’s a challenge for working families and the lack of childcare presents challenges for primarily women as they are entering back into the workforce,” she said. “We really need to come together as a community to help find alternatives.”
Manner agreed that the shortage is hurting women, which is hurting the economy.
“Right now, we are graduating more women from college than we are men. But the number of women are declining in the workforce, so the investment we are making, which is huge, with post-secondary education in our state, we’re not benefiting from it,” she said. “Every time that a mom stays out of the workforce because she can’t find childcare, that’s changing that return on investment.”
How do you increase the supply of childcare to make it more accessible to families, and at the same time raise the wages of childcare workers, to make it a more appealing career? It’s a conundrum.
“We need to take it seriously. We need to really understand that childcare is an essential service in our economy,” Manner said. “Every business in town has a help-wanted, now-hiring sign in the window, and I know a couple of businesses who are really frustrated right now because they’ve just lost employees who had babies.”
LONG HOURS AND LOW PAY
Childcare workers are among the lowest paid workers across the country. An analysis by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley determined the median wage for childcare workers is $9.77 per hour, putting it at the bottom two percentile of all occupations.
In Michigan, the study found that the median hourly wage for childcare workers dropped from from $10.46 to $9.43 between 2010 and 2015. By contrast, a kindergarten teacher in Michigan made an average hourly wage of $25.22 in 2015.
“It’s just not adding up,” said Candice Hamel, Great Start executive director. “If we’re paying great people such low wages, we’re not going to retain them. We’re paying them lower wages than we’re paying fast food or even animal handlers.”
Hamel said Great Start works to improve the quality of daycare that’s provided. Part of the goal is to change the perception of childcare so that it’s valued more by society.
The low wages combined with a perception that childcare is expensive explains why there are waiting lists in Traverse City and deserts in Benzie County — the people who are educated to provide quality care for children should be able to earn more money, and society should respect the profession enough so that the added costs would be accepted.
“These licensed providers are not babysitters — they are licensed professionals, and they do really hard work,” Hamel said. “Some of those higher risk communities, those are the families that can’t afford that higher quality care, and those are the ones that need the highest quality care the most.”
LOOKING TO LANSING
Matt McCauley, executive director of Networks Northwest, said he sees the daycare crisis as an economic development issue that the state is ignoring.
“In terms of importance to the region, it’s right up there with housing,” McCauley said. “If we’re looking to attract and retain a younger, highly skilled workforce in this region, we have to have these conversations about housing and daycare.”
Although there’s a recognition now that the state of childcare is in crisis, solutions are not immediately evident.
“There’s not a silver bullet, there’s not one thing that put us in this place, and there’s not one thing that can take us out of it, either,” McCauley said.
Gabriel Schneider of Northern Strategies 360, a government relations consultancy, said his firm worked with legislators to find room in the state budget to free up more money for daycare; their intent was to spur an increase in the poverty level threshold for daycare subsidies for working families.
Schneider said he’s also working with people in northern Michigan to come up with broader legislation that could make childcare more accessible.
“We don’t have one proposal that were all behind yet, but that’s what we’re hoping to develop,” he said. “It may not be one thing. We hope to have proposals, even plural, to look at for how to address this.”
Ken Morin, legislative director for Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R)-Manton said his office plans to propose legislation to address the problem, though they aren’t yet sure what it will look like.
“We are definitely aware that there is a daycare shortage in northern Michigan,” Morin said. “It is definitely something that the representative is looking into.”
30 YEARS AND STILL NO RESPECT
Thirty years ago, Christine Bazzett wrote an article about how hard to is to run daycare while people have no respect for the profession and think of it as women’s work that should be performed at home for free.
Not much has changed in three decades, Bazzett said.
Bazzett operates Joyful Noise Daycare in Traverse City. She said her business keeps her so busy that she could only answer questions via email.
She said the result of the low-pay and low regard that people hold for the childcare profession is that few people go into it, so it makes sense there isn’t enough supply to meet the demand.
“I get phone calls almost every day from parents looking for childcare,” she wrote. “I can't speak to their level of difficulty, but they seem frustrated or discouraged or worn out when they call and get a ‘no’ from me.”
Bazzett said her next opening is in September 2019.
Employers should pay their employees more so that the employees can afford to pay more for childcare, she said. Employers should also offer regular, dependable schedules and be willing to be flexible so that employees can work with their childcare providers.
“It's amazing to me that a large office complex can’t let an employee shift their hours 15 minutes so they can pick up their child on time, and yet, they often won’t,” Bazzett wrote. “They expect that the provider will work overtime rather than let the employee come in a bit early and leave early.”
Ultimately Bazzett said that childcare professionals should get more respect.
“We hear a lot about the difficulty parents have finding and paying for child care, but not a lot about why none of them are considering it for their career. And if they did, what would their friends think?” she wrote. “I’m still referred to in many circles and by some of my clients as ‘the sitter.’ I'm 61 years old. If that could change, my life would be better.”