Gov. Ned Lamont in October 2021 pledged $1,000 bonuses to child care workers. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Employers across Connecticut are having trouble filling open positions, an issue at the top of state lawmakers’ agendas as they begin this year’s legislative session. One key to enabling that workforce development agenda, some say, is shoring up the state’s child care sector.

And with more money available to spend this year, advocates are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars to make it happen.

At the Commerce Committee’s first meeting Tuesday, co-chair Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said the committee’s work this session would continue to tackle the many challenges COVID-19 has presented for businesses in the state, including “the return of the workforce.” Specifically, she said, they needed to address the fact that women’s participation in the workforce remains below pre-pandemic levels. 

Boosting labor force participation among parents of young children requires “the growth and support of an industry that this committee hithertofore probably thought was not really part of our purview,” Hartley said. “Child care is an economic driver. It is most important.” 

Last year, the governor and lawmakers negotiated more than $100 million in additional funding for child care. That included a round of $1,000 bonus payments to workers in the sector. 

In the months since the 2022 legislative session wrapped, analysts at the state Office of Early Childhood and the University of Connecticut completed reports examining the economics of the child care sector, one focused on child care centers and the other on home-based child care businesses. Legislators and advocates say the findings will inform their discussions this session.

Advocates with the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance are calling for the state to increase payments to child care providers so those programs can offer more competitive wages, ideally drawing workers back to the field. They also want the state to support free child care for early educators and funding for apprenticeships and scholarships to build the child care workforce pipeline.

“The industry is operating at reduced capacity due to a lack of staff,” Merrill Gay, executive director of the Alliance, wrote in an email. Citing a recent survey, Gay said the staffing shortage has reached an estimated 4,400. Without workforce support and competitive wages — ideally on par with public school teachers with comparable degrees and experience — early childhood classrooms will remain closed and children will remain on waitlists, he said.

In addition, the Alliance wants to expand child care access to working families by further subsidizing what parents pay to providers. But restoring the sector’s capacity would have to happen first, Gay said.

Together, the Alliance estimates its priorities would raise the state’s early care budget by nearly $738 million annually, roughly triple the current annual allocation. 

That’ll be a tough sell to the state’s chief executive, Gov. Ned Lamont, who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of maintaining fiscal discipline. The state’s debt tops $88 billion, and required annual payments are expected to put extra pressure on state finances well into the 2030s or later. But over the last few years, Connecticut has managed to amass a $3.3 billion safety net, even while paying down debt. 

This year, pressure is expected to mount for the governor to spend some of those reserves.

Jessica Sager, chief executive of All Our Kin, a support and advocacy group that represents home-based family care providers, said the child care sector still hasn’t fully recovered from economic challenges that followed the pandemic recession. In order to keep family child care providers “in a profession they love,” thereby enabling parents to get back to work in all sectors, the state needs to tap its rainy day funds, Sager said.

“The road to recovery is paved with child care,” Sager said.

Robin Comey, D-Branford, said much of the state’s increased support for child care over the last three years came from federal COVID-relief funding, which won’t be available much longer. Child care was stripped from the Inflation Reduction Act, even after President Joe Biden visited Hartford to tour a child care facility and specifically promote those parts of his economic agenda.

Comey, who serves on both the Education and Children’s committees, said she and her colleagues in the legislature will “see where we can alleviate some of the pain points,” adding, “I believe that this is the year that we can make some progress to stabilize the industry.”

She described an exchange she had on New Year’s Eve with a neighbor, a single father who is having trouble finding morning and afternoon care for his daughter so he can seek full-time employment.

“There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t have conversations with constituents or business owners about the importance of having really strong, affordable and quality care for our kids,” Comey said.

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Erica E. PhillipsEconomic Development Reporter

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.