For more than 30 years, Maureen Fontaine has run a licensed child care business out of her home in Fairfield. She came close to retiring in 2020 after losing both her parents to COVID that May, but she decided to stay open.
“It was so stressful,” Fontaine said through tears as she recalled all the unknowns and changing protocols during the early months of the pandemic.
Several of the parents in her program were essential workers — a nurse, a teacher — who were suddenly forced to balance their jobs with child care responsibilities. By staying open, Fontaine said, “It enabled them to work, because I’m sure some of them would have stopped working.”
Connecticut’s labor force — the portion of the adult population employed or looking for work — contracted sharply at the beginning of the pandemic and has failed to recover to its pre-COVID scale. While many of the 289,400 jobs lost in March and April of 2020 have been recovered, the state’s workforce in February 2022 remained 4.2% smaller than it was the same month in 2020.
Economists have attributed much of the persistent workforce deficit to a child care shortage.
“The biggest economic problem the U.S. currently faces is low labor force participation,” University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson told the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month. “To solve that problem requires investing more in our youngest citizens and supporting their families with a more reliable, affordable and a higher quality child care sector,” Stevenson said.
The need for investment has only grown more acute over the last two years. About one in four working households in Connecticut have children under the age of 6, and the state was already short 50,000 infant and toddler care slots before the pandemic.
That deficiency has since gotten worse.
While Fontaine kept her doors open, many providers in Connecticut could not. Dozens of in-home providers and child care centers have shuttered, leading to a capacity decline of several thousand spaces since the beginning of 2020, according to data compiled by 211 Child Care and United Way CT. Among the larger centers that remained open, many currently have empty classrooms.
Nationwide, the number of child care programs has declined by about 10%, according to Child Care Aware of America. The sector has recovered only 87.6% of jobs compared to February 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Analysts with Wells Fargo estimated nearly half a million families around the country are still struggling to arrange child care.
"Providers were always teetering," said Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a labor organizer with CSEA SEIU Local 2001, which represents more than 2,000 in-home caregivers.
Running a child care business is a delicate balance, she said. Mandated child-to-teacher ratios limit capacity, and the complex patchwork of state and federal subsidies only goes so far in covering tuition and keeping the lights on. If one or two parents pull out of a small child care program, the entire business is at risk of going under.
“You’re always going to be on the brink of shutting down, which is what happened during COVID,” Bermudez Zimmerman said. With so many parents out of work or sheltering at home for the first few months, many child care businesses were forced to downsize or close altogether, and “When you shut it down, it’s really hard to start back up,” she said.
The industry that supports all industries
Over the last two years, child care providers have scrambled to support working parents in more ways than just watching their kids. Bermudez Zimmerman said she knows of half a dozen caregivers who have loaned a parent their car when they needed to get to work.
Mini Santosh, director at Action Early Learning Center in Danbury, said she has helped many parents fill out paperwork for tuition assistance. Most of the 150 children at the center come from households considered “working poor,” and many parents went through periods of unemployment during the pandemic. Santosh said she encouraged them to continue bringing their children to the center, even if they couldn’t pay, and to use the time the kids were being looked after to seek out work.
“Our industry pretty much supports all industries,” Santosh said.
Action ELC also served as a hub for distributing meals to families and supplying cleaning products, masks and gloves to child care providers in the surrounding area. Santosh said nearly every one of her employees came down with COVID at one point, but they adapted — quarantining for periods of time and sending the children home with iPads for virtual care programs.
“We made sure there was learning happening, making sure those connections are made, checking on those families if they need any help other than child care — we did all of that,” Santosh said. “Because they were in crisis, and we were all in crisis.”
Child care centers around the state say they’re losing teachers and staff turnover is high. They attribute those challenges to the tight labor market and the lack of funding to pay a competitive salary to early care teachers, who hold higher education degrees and often additional credentials. Average earnings for teachers in the sector are close to poverty level, according to Connecticut Voices for Children.
“We've reached a point now where individual teachers are saying, ‘Enough!’” said Joanne Kelleher, director of the Early Childhood Collaborative of Southington. “They can go work for McDonald's or Target for $18 or $20 an hour and, as someone said to me, ‘I don't have to touch bodily fluids and poopy diapers all day long.’”
That places further strain on the sector.
Melody Davis, a teacher at a center in Waterbury, cares for four babies in her classroom. In the past, she had assistant teachers to back her up, but lately she finds herself more often on her own. “When you don’t have that extra staff that’s in there every day just to help you out, it can be so overwhelming,” she said. “You can’t get that helping hand if you don’t have the money to pay for it.”
Davis has a 3-year-old daughter who attends the child care center where she works. She said she used to work a second job “to make ends meet,” but she didn’t want to be away from her daughter, McKenzie, in the evenings and on weekends. Her income now should qualify her for state child care subsidies, but Davis said she has run into complications getting approved.
Despite those frustrations, Davis is passionate about her work.
“We’ve been doing ‘Mother Goose’ and rhyming and things like that,” she said. “If we get a child who likes dinosaurs or something, we'll do a theme on dinosaurs. Or if they like cars, we’ll do something on cars. Just to keep them engaged and learning.”
Fixing the crisis
After two years enduring the pandemic’s ups and downs, taking on additional responsibilities and supporting working parents even if it meant losing money, child care businesses were taken aback when Gov. Ned Lamont’s latest budget didn’t include an infusion of funding to shore up the industry.
“We should not be in this situation right now. Because when the governor needed us, and he called us out in a pandemic, we responded,” Georgia Goldburn, director of Hope for New Haven child care center, told a recent rally of child care providers. “After months of warning this governor that child care is on the brink of collapse, he devoted $0 out of a $2 billion surplus to fix the crisis in the child care industry,” Goldburn said.
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said child care funding increased in last year's state budget and that level of support was "maintained" for the current year. "We've provided significant funding over the last several years, both through the general fund and through federally supported programs," he said.
Over the last two years, federal COVID-related funding bolstered Connecticut's child care sector with more than $200 million, which went toward stabilizing child care businesses and providing tuition vouchers to parents.
But that was a short-term fix.
In response to the faults in the child care sector laid bare by the pandemic, lawmakers have proposed several pieces of legislation this session that could offer a lifeline to the industry. Senate Bill 2 includes provisions that would increase state funding for child care and school readiness programs by several thousand dollars per child. Senate Bill 408 seeks to fund grants and loans for startup child care centers or those seeking to expand. Senate Bill 487 would establish funding and support for infant and toddler care providers, potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years. House Bill 5465 would provide early childhood educators and care providers with “salary enhancements” and student loan forgiveness grants.
Several of Connecticut’s top companies have expressed public support for child care funding proposed in S.B. 2. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association has testified in favor of S.B. 2, S.B. 408 and H.B 5465.
Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye told members of the Children and Public Health committees that the Lamont administration supports expanding early childhood education for all, but she added, “We continue to believe that federal legislation and funding is imminent and want to be sure that any steps Connecticut takes align with these federal funds and accompanying rules.”
That federal proposal would restrict child care cost to 7% of family income and it would provide universal preschool.
"If the federal government were to pass a law like that, it would kind of turn some economics at the state level on its head," Reiss said.
In a report last year, researchers with think-tank Connecticut Voices for Children wrote that the child care industry faces “an untenable economic model.” Tuition rates are set based on a percentage of the market rate. That’s a problem because the market rate is suppressed, they wrote, “based on limits to what families are able to afford, rather than the actual cost of high quality programming.” As a result, “staff are undervalued, funding for quality improvements is minimal, and low-income families are effectively excluded from many programs,” the report found.
The Center for American Progress has estimated that infant and toddler care in Connecticut costs more than $20,000 a year to provide. The annual market rates in Connecticut are roughly $4,000 below that. Most parents in Connecticut can’t afford to pay what child care costs, and unlike K-12 education early childhood programs are not free and universally accessible.
"Everyone's in agreement that there are issues that need to be addressed in the structure and infrastructure of child care," Reiss said. "Leadership at the federal level would absolutely provide clarity at the local level."
The future economy
Universal access to child care would strengthen the workforce. But it’s also an investment in the state’s economic future, experts say. Leaders in the child care industry often point out that early education is critical to child development.
“They are the youngest students in the community, and we are their first educators,” Action ELC’s Santosh said.
Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University, said, “What we do for children can be viewed as an investment and will have an impact on how the economy functions in the future.”
By contrast, Currie continued, “If we don't invest in children, we end up with children who are sick, disabled, not well educated, not able to take the jobs that we need to have staffed in the knowledge economy.”
Companies and lawmakers are already contemplating what those jobs will look like. Last week, Lamont made a $75 million deal with defense contractor Lockheed Martin that would keep its Sikorsky operation headquartered in the state until 2042, supporting a workforce of 7,000.
By then, today's infants and toddlers would be in their 20s, beginning their careers.
Failing to support early child care and education would mean not meeting “the full potential of society,” Currie said. “It's bad for individuals, but it's also bad for everybody.”
Fontaine said she believes it's important for all families to have access to affordable, high-quality child care programs where "children feel safe and are able to grow to their full potential." Those strong bonds and consistent care has been especially vital for her students over the past two years, she said.
Fontaine has made a point of talking to the children in her program about their feelings during the pandemic. And one day, during lunch, one young student posed an idea: “Wouldn't it be great if we could make a coronavirus machine?” he said.
For the next few weeks, Fontaine had the children imagine their “coronavirus machines” and draw pictures. She got boxes and the children attached wheels and decorations. And inside the boxes they pasted their plans for how they would get rid of the coronavirus.