Child care crisis striking home

FAIRMONT — A child care committee met this week in Fairmont to discuss Minnesota’s deepening child care shortage.

The meeting was facilitated by Linsey Preuss, economic development coordinator for Fairmont, who explained why she put the committee together.

“I do regular business visits to existing businesses and hear frequently that workforce is a barrier to businesses expanding,” she said. “In other words, local businesses would be growing, but they can’t because they can’t find the workforce they need at the present time, so an expansion doesn’t make sense because they would need more people. There are many reasons for this workforce shortage, but one of them is the child care crisis.”

The meeting opened with a presentation via Skype from Marnie Werner, interim executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. Werner is a researcher, and provided many statistics on the shortage of child care providers and centers throughout the state, with an emphasis in Martin County. Werner called this a “quiet crisis.”

“We have been looking at child care as a personal, family issue,” she said. “We can no longer do that. The developing shortage is having an impact on not just families but employers and entire communities. Solutions for rural communities will not be the same as for urban and suburban ones.”

Werner said a key problem is that the cost of providing child care is higher than parents are able or willing to pay. There’s a big impact on businesses because parents who cannot find or afford child care might quit their job in order to stay at home.

Child care is also a factor for families in deciding where to go if they are looking to relocate, Werner explained.

Camela Moore works for Human Services of Faribault and Martin Counties. She is a county agency social worker/licensing worker. Moore said that since 2015, 15 in-home child care providers have opened in the counties, but 22 have closed, and she sees more closings down the line.

Moore also talked about how difficult and expensive it is to get licensed.

For a Class A license, a provider can have a capacity of 10 children, six under the school age of 5. Of the children under school age, a combined total of no more than three can be infants and toddlers. Of that total, no more than two can be infants.

“The bulk of the kids are 2 to 5, well now, 3- and 4-year-olds go to preschool for part of the day, so should providers hold that spot for preschool kids and charge parents full-time pay?” Moore asked. “Because the parents won’t want to pay that because their kid isn’t there full time. So they can’t hold that spot open.”

Moore said most of the waiting lists she knows of are for infants and toddlers.

Shea Ripley of Building Blocks in Fairmont reported they get calls constantly and no longer have an infant waiting list because they are booked through August.

“The best we can do is tell people to call back and keep checking,” said Ripley, adding, “Our hope is that the infants will continue to move up to toddlers and preschool so that that puts us at full capacity.”

Ripley also said they have an issue finding staff who will stay with what little they can afford to pay them.

“We actually aren’t at our max capacity because we can’t find the staff to get to max capacity,” she said.

One statistic from a report from First Children’s Finance shows that in the 56031 zip code, there are 66 fewer licensed spots than the market demands.

A local woman interested in opening a child care center, Jessica Miller, made an extensive presentation, including her background working with children, a possible location for a center and rates she would charge. While many are supportive of her plan, there is an emphasis on the importance of keeping existing child care centers open and finding the staff to get them to full capacity.

“We definitely need more child care, but also quality child care,” Ripley said. “We have room to have more kids, but we need the staff first.”

“I look at the $10.50 an hour and I get it. How do you get people to work for that?” said Fairmont City Council member Bruce Peters.

“That’s the top of what we’re able to pay,” Ripley admitted.

“I think daycare providers have a story to tell and that’s, ‘Hey, I’m not getting rich off of this,'” said banker Fred Krahmer. “We’ve got to stop saying somebody is winning. This is a terrible lose-lose.”

It was pointed out that what the census data reports is the median income for each county is probably a big drive in how providers determine rate, and Martin County is a lower-income area.

“Right now, communities are innovating at the local level to find solutions,” Werner said. “Partnerships formed by providers, local governments, nonprofits, school districts and other organizations are being formed to find ways to help close the gap.”

While many ideas were thrown around during the two-hour gathering, those present asked how to stay informed and keep the conversation going. Preuss said she has everyone’s contact information and will work to set up a future meeting.