The pandemic’s effects on the industry in Oklahoma & how to move forward
At the height of the pandemic in 2020 when many families were sheltering together at home, working parents across the metro discovered with renewed understanding just how much they rely on childcare. As schools were closed and childcare centers were primarily serving essential workers, working parents tried to simultaneously (and sometimes impossibly) work from home and care for their children. Employers and employees alike realized the critical role childcare plays in the community.
“The pandemic proved the childcare industry is vital to the economic success of Oklahoma,” said Brittany Lee, director of childcare services for Oklahoma Human Services. “Our goal is to provide licensed, affordable, high-quality childcare, offering a variety of options.”
Lee reports childcare centers that were operating at 20 or 30 percent capacity during the height of the pandemic have begun to rebound, with many reaching pre-pandemic levels of 70 to 80 percent capacity. But like many industries negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the childcare industry is still in a tailspin, and experts predict
those effects will last long beyond the pandemic itself.
The biggest challenges are all cyclical in nature, each compounding the others: a shortage of workers, loss of income for childcare providers due to loss of enrollment and a lack of childcare options for parents.
“What happened in the pandemic was disastrous but it was just a culmination; the issues existed way before the pandemic and the pandemic exacerbated them,” said Paula Koos, executive director of Oklahoma Childcare Resources and Referral Association. “We’ve been losing childcare homes for six to eight years and they are not being replaced because other people don’t see the childcare business as [a way to] make a living.”
According to Oklahoma Department of Human Services, more than 115,000 Oklahoma children are in childcare every month. The same childcare facility directors and employees who stayed open to essential workers at the height of the pandemic, operating often at 20 to 30 percent of their income with the same pre-pandemic costs, are now fighting to make ends meet long-term, all amidst a general lack of respect for the industry.
“People in the childcare industry truly go into it because they love children,” said Koos. “What’s really sad is that they need to [also] be a business person to be able to end every month in the black, and that takes the joy out of it for so many people.”
Reduced enrollment and workforce
At various points during the pandemic, many parents who were able to work from home or who didn’t work outside the home opted not to send their children to childcare.
“In many cases, enrollment fell by 50 percent,” said Koos. “You have the ongoing expenses of a business — the rent doesn’t change, utilities don’t change, insurance doesn’t change, but you have 50 percent fewer children and that makes it more difficult to make ends meet.”
While more kids are coming back to childcare, Koos says ongoing issues due to COVID are still causing providers to struggle and their income levels, in general, are not back up to what they were pre-pandemic. When kids have to be quarantined for a week or more, classrooms must be closed and cleaned, and when there aren’t children to care for, teachers may temporarily be without a job or pay. Some providers are having to close their doors.
“During the pandemic we saw childcare homes who were really committed and had been serving parents for a long time, even when they weren’t breaking even, they continued to operate,” said Koos. “We heard from a lot of providers who said it totally wiped out their savings. There are people who are leaving the industry who unfortunately probably won’t come back.”
Unlike in some other industries where family-owned businesses are passed down through the generations, childcare providers in the 60- to 65-year-old age range who are retiring from their businesses don’t typically have children stepping in to take over, according to Koos.
“They don’t see it as a financially-viable way to make a living,” said Koos of the next generation.
Even for those providers able to stay open, finding quality employees has been a significant struggle.
Ramona Johnson, director of Rainbow Fleet’s Early Education Center in Oklahoma City, says this has been her top challenge since the center opened in October 2020. Upon opening, the center already had a large enrollment and Johnson was able to hire quality teachers to get the program running. But as the need continues to grow to serve more children, Johnson worries about sustainability.
“We want to find those perfect providers to come take care of our kids,” said Johnson. “It’s a struggle, and you get to the point where you want to hire anybody because you know what it’s like to be without a minimum of staff. But I will go without to find what I’m looking for.”
Johnson is proactively searching career websites and scheduling interviews with potential candidates, some of whom don’t show up for interviews after all her work of vetting them. While the process has been frustrating at times, she says the time and energy are worth it to find the right employees.
“I’ve found good, credible teachers and we’re continuing to hire until we get where we need to be,” said Johnson. “We have to put in the work and keep a positive mindset. Sometimes that’s a struggle — everyone knows this is not the best-paying field so you have to love what you do.”
Nationally, childcare deserts are defined as geographic areas where there are more than three children for every licensed childcare spot available. In Oklahoma, childcare availability varies drastically, especially comparing urban and suburban areas to rural areas.
“If you look at the three counties in the Oklahoma panhandle combined, there are five children for every available licensed childcare slot,” said Koos. “You’re competing with four other people, which makes it difficult to find the facility, quality and location you want.”
In the OKC metro, Koos reports there are about 1.65 children for every childcare spot.
“Even if you have two people for every slot, that means someone doesn’t get care,” said Koos.
The other significant issue in Oklahoma is a lack of facilities providing childcare outside traditional hours. Families who need childcare between 8 a.m and 5 p.m. have a much better chance of finding available, high-quality childcare in their desired location than a parent who works from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., overnight or swing shifts.
Cost and pay
In Oklahoma, the average annual cost of full-time childcare for an infant is $7,000, or $6,300 for a toddler between ages 3 and 5, according to Koos.
“That’s a huge expense for a family,” said Koos. “Families are paying more than they can afford to pay and people are saying if I’m paying so much then why can’t the childcare worker be paid more?”
The problem is the ratio of staff to children in quality, licensed childcare settings can’t — and shouldn’t — be changed in order to ensure safety of the children in care. Those ratios often make it unfeasible for providers, based on their income, to pay staff a living wage. Very few childcare workers receive benefits packages, health insurance, vacation or sick leave.
“The only way childcare employees receive a living wage and childcare owners make a profit is there has to be some government support to childcare,” said Koos. “I know that parents can’t absorb any more costs and childcare facilities can’t afford to pay any more. As a society we have to decide if childcare is important enough [to fund].”
While OKDHS does offer a childcare subsidy program based on income, Koos says many parents who qualify are unwilling to use the service because they don’t want to accept financial assistance from the government. On the flip side are families who make just a little too much to qualify for assistance, and the impact on their budgets can be devastating.
“We call it the cliff effect,” said Koos. “You have a job and you’re working but you make $20 per pay period too much to get assistance. So there goes 50 percent of your paycheck [to childcare expenses].”
Even those who don’t have children at home or whose kids don’t require childcare are affected by the trickle-down effects of the challenges the childcare industry is experiencing. Koos reports that in December 2020, the third top reason people couldn’t work in the United States was the inability to find childcare.
What often happens for families that have two incomes, particularly working jobs that pay around minimum wage or a bit more, is that paying $6,000 per year, or $12,000 for two kids, to attend childcare is not an economically feasible calculation.
“It doesn’t add up — you don’t make enough,” explained Koos. “Lots of families make the decision that it’s more cost-effective for one parent to stay home.”
According to Washington Post calculations from the U.S. Census Bureau’s September 2021 Current Population Survey, there are 1.3 million fewer employed mothers than there were in February 2020, but only 734,000 fewer employed fathers, all in the 25 to 54 age category. Oklahoma Sen. Carri Hicks initiated an interim study on childcare in September 2021, which found that 1 in 5 women have left the workforce permanently, citing family obligations as the main reason.
That decision then impacts the workforce, leaving their previously-held jobs open and reducing the labor pool. Koos says the phenomenon is very apparent right now in Oklahoma, with a 3 percent unemployment rate as of December 2021 and “hiring” signs displayed at fast food restaurants, childcare facilities and other minimum wage jobs.
“There aren’t a lot of people floating around to take those minimum wage jobs,” said Koos.
When the workforce is saturated and yet jobs remain open, it’s not often childcare jobs that are the most sought-after. Lee adds oftentimes what childcare workers could make is less than what the fast food restaurant down the street could offer them. The Washington Post reported 100,000 fewer childcare workers nationally in October 2020 compared with October 2019.
“We can’t [always] compete — and yet the work is so much more important,” said Lee.
Assistance for providers and families
In 2020 and 2021, OKDHS has been able to use federal funds to support the local childcare industry, directly helping childcare providers sustain and thrive during the pandemic. CARES monies have provided quality and sustainability payments based on a childcare provider’s capacity, star rating on the Quality Rating and Improvement System and providers’ compliance to licensing and permit requirements. Funds have also provided sanitation payments to help with added cleaning costs, an increase in absent pay days (where providers still get paid for those families on childcare subsidies even when that child cannot attend due to illness), an increase in the daily subsidy rate paid to providers, coverage of family co-pays and payment for the full-time childcare rate for school-aged children.
American Rescue Plan monies have provided stabilization grants for childcare programs as well as incentivized quality improvement, access to care and workforce development to support Oklahoma families. Providers can spend the funds on a variety of key operating expenses, including wages and benefits, rent and utilities and cleaning and sanitation supplies. Specialty grants will be available beginning in spring 2022 to help start new childcare programs, assist with staff retention and address childcare deserts, particularly in low-income and special needs communities. OKDHS will also use ARPA funds to cover 3 months of childcare subsidy for those unemployed due to COVID, provide continued increased subsidy rates, provide business training resources for providers and make available an increase in stipends awarded to program staff who meet professional development hours, among other initiatives. ARPA funds will be available through September 2024.
“The sustainability grants had a huge impact [in 2021],” said Lee. “We heard relief from people and how much it helped. DHS has plans for those to continue for at least a year. That gives us time to look at the future and how we can help going forward.”
While it’s not quantifiable, another result of the pandemic is a likely increase in unlicensed childcare homes. In Oklahoma, if you’re caring for children other than your own in your home on a regular basis, you must be licensed to do so, and that requires start-up costs to meet licensing requirements and receive a permit, according to OKDHS. Lee says in many cases an unlicensed home is the case of a friend or neighbor offering childcare on an ongoing basis so a parent can work or attend school. Oftentimes those individuals may not be aware of the licensing process or the level of support provided by OKDHS.
“We want to keep children safe; we assist financially and provide the educational component,” said Lee. “We know people are concerned about the monetary part.”
For families who need childcare, those who are income-eligible can receive childcare subsidies. Those who qualify do not have to pay out of pocket for childcare, and Lee says OKDHS plans to continue that for as long as possible.
But those who qualify aren’t always aware of the financial assistance or willing to use it.
“There is a stigma of being on subsidy,” said Lee. “It’s really just supplementing and supporting getting children into quality programs.”
OKDHS is planning a mass marketing campaign to seek out potential qualified childcare employees. The agency also provides free training for childcare teachers and directors, as well as business resources for providers and other support.
“If you love working with children, this is the time because we are in need of the right people,” said Lee.
Johnson says the efforts of OKDHS and other community organizations are paying off, even though the full effects are not being felt yet.
“[They] are working right now to figure out ways to get more quality care and more teachers coming in [to the field],” said Johnson. “There are lots of people that are taking classes wanting to get into this field. We have to continue working together.”
Johnson stresses that it’s critical that both providers and employees have support from each other and the parents. For her as director, that means she collaborates with her employees to get their feedback and consistently reiterates to them that they have her support and that they must take care of themselves and their families, too. She also notes, especially for the center’s first-time parents, the childcare workers’ years of child development experience are invaluable.
“Their position is significant,” said Johnson of her employees. “I want to make sure they feel valued.”
How the community can help
Lee calls the childcare industry a “vital space and a sacred space.” While much like in the education industry, there has been a lack of respect paid to teachers and childcare employees, but Lee says that tide is beginning to turn in her industry.
“The reason we have so much money from the government [to support childcare] is because this is a vital service,” said Lee.
Prior to the pandemic, Lee said parents and the community at large were more likely to undervalue childcare workers, often calling them babysitters, when in reality providers do so much more than simply play with children.
“We are instilling into someone’s life, and that’s an honor,” said Lee. “The physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive development … early educators have the insight to mold and guide that for children.”
Valued childcare providers who are knowledgeable in children’s health and wellness, development and using research-based curriculum often become instrumental parts of a family’s village, helping raise children who know how to have healthy relationships and are exposed to new cultures and ideas. Lee says childcare providers are providing the educational components that help form children into who they will become, and they often become parents’ first point of reference when they have questions about parenting, their child’s health or development.
“There is nothing like watching a child’s development firsthand,” said Lee. “You see those light bulb moments unfold.”
Even for parents who don’t work outside the home, Lee advises it’s important for young children to have access to early childhood educators and other children so they can develop the skills to be successful as they begin school. Childcare centers deserve the same support from the community as other local businesses, adds Lee.
“To really shift the tide, let’s uplift [childcare providers] as another local business we should pour into,” said Lee.
Lee suggests community members ask their local childcare facilities what donations they could provide that would be helpful, from Post-it notes to diapers. Families clearing out gently-used toys or books their kids have outgrown could donate them to a childcare facility. Grandparents or college students with extra time on their hands could offer to read to the children.
Johnson hopes to see childcare providers band together to ensure the industry grows. She’d like to see Rainbow Fleet become a lab school, where early childhood education students and those interested in childcare services could observe, complete practicums and receive training from the lead teachers in their program.
“We have to support each other,” said Johnson.
As has become very clear during the pandemic, quality childcare is a vital part of keeping the economy running, and that means the community at large has a responsibility to support the industry moving forward.
“There’s not a simple solution,” said Koos. “It’s going to take money, time and creative thinking to figure out how we manage to provide childcare to those families where parents need to work in an environment where childcare employees can make a
To find high-quality childcare near you, as well as tips for choosing the best childcare option for your family (or to
find a local childcare facility or in-home provider to support), visit rainbowfleet.org, oklahomachildcare.org or childcarefind.okdhs.org/