‘Subsidized By The Low Wages Of Teachers,’ Ga. Childcare Staffing Shortage Worsened By Pandemic

Georgia childcare centers are struggling to hire and keep staff members. Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) has distributed $165 million in stabilization grants to childcare providers, which has helped many of them stay open. However, low wages are keeping many workers away.

The Wage Gap

Sharon Foster is the owner of Bells Ferry Learning Center, which has locations in Woodstock and Marietta. She also runs afterschool programs in Gwinnett County and serves as the Georgia Child Care Association president. She says it’s been a struggle to retain staff at Bells Ferry during COVID-19.

“It really has devastated us,” she says. “You can go down to Cheeseburger Bobby’s or Target and make $14, $15 an hour, and you have to be highly educated and have years of experience to reach that pay level in childcare.”

We will never achieve a sustainable, high-quality childcare, until we’re able to address the low compensation of teachers.”—Pam Tatum, President and CEO of Quality Care for Children

Childcare employees need to have early childhood credentials just to make the average pay in most centers of $9-10/hour. Historically, Foster says it’s been hard to keep teachers who could make a lot more teaching Kindergarten in public schools.

“We have to have all the same skills [as public school teachers],” Foster says. “We have to be able to write lesson plans and execute them. We have to understand brain development. The majority of that occurs from birth to three [years old]. So we’re the ones setting the foundation for this child’s lifelong learning.”

Unlike public schools, which are funded by taxes, most childcare providers rely on parent tuition. So, Foster says if they want to pay teachers more, that cost is usually passed on to parents.

Childcare employees make an average of $9-10/hour in Georgia. Providers say they have a hard time competing with retailers who offer $15/hour. (Bells Ferry Learning Center)

“What most people do not realize is that at least 50 cents on every dollar that comes into the building goes right back out to payroll,” she says. “In some centers, it can reach 60, even 70 percent, especially if you’re under-enrolled because you still have to meet state ratios and that type of thing.”

The state requires early childhood classes to be smaller than those in K-12 schools. For example, the state’s student/teacher ratio for an infant and toddler class is 6:1.

An Ongoing Problem

Experts say low pay is the biggest obstacle to retaining childcare staff.

“The childcare system we have is really subsidized by low wages of teachers,” says Pam Tatum, the president and CEO of Quality Care for Children, which helps parents find childcare.

That’s true even after an influx of federal stimulus money, she says. In March, Congress approved a federal aid package that included $1.5 billion for Georgia’s childcare providers. The funds, distributed by the state, helped stabilize a lot of centers, but in most cases, didn’t go toward pay raises. Tatum says allocating the money that way would’ve created a financial burden for providers.

Across Georgia, childcare centers have seen a 25 percent drop in enrollment since the pandemic started. Bells Ferry saw the same decline. (Bells Ferry Learning Center)

“If the increase in wages goes through the childcare program, the childcare program has the taxes to pay on those wages,” Tatum says. “So the best way to do it would be a wage supplement that came directly from the state.”

DECAL did provide one-time $1000 payments to all childcare workers. But Tatum says some staff members left after receiving the lump sum.

More stimulus money is on the way. Pam Stevens, DECAL’s Deputy Commissioner for Childcare Services, says the agency is trying to be strategic about how to distribute the funds.

“We’re trying to…help fill that gap,” Stevens says. “But…[providers] need people to walk in the door to want jobs, and that’s a challenge everybody’s having right now.”

Even if the stimulus money helps boost pay in the short term, it won’t last forever. That’s why people like Tatum want state and federal officials to find a permanent solution.

“My hope is that as a result of this pandemic, we have recognized how important childcare is and that we begin to make those kinds of investments that can really make a difference,” she says. “We will never achieve a sustainable, high-quality childcare until we’re able to address the low compensation of teachers.”

Added Benefits?

Because she can’t pay her employees much, Foster offers other benefits to compensate. She’s able to give workers health insurance, which a lot of centers can’t do. She also offers paid time off, holidays and is currently giving new hires a $1200 signing bonus.

“That’s a big lure for potential employees,” says Jo Peavey, who helps Foster with hiring, marketing, and teaches as needed. “When I turn over three pages of benefits that you’re entitled to here, everybody is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t get this where I currently am.’”

“Childcare has done a great job during the pandemic,” says DECAL’s Deputy Commissioner for Childcare Services Pam Stevens. “We haven’t had huge outbreaks and kids remained safe. They took a lot of precautions, and we really saw how important the role of childcare is in communities.” (Bells Ferry Learning Center)

Peavey says the ‘extras’ Bells Ferry offers help with recruiting. Even with those incentives, though, the center still needs to hire about three more staff members before school starts.

Peavey says it’s in everyone’s best interest to find a long-term solution because childcare is critical to keeping other industries going.

“Of course, doctors and nurses are essential workers and your ambulance drivers and your police and firemen,” she says. “But none of those people can go to their job if we’re not open to take their kids.”

Providers think enrollment may pick up when school starts and parents head back to the office. They think hiring might too, but it’s unclear whether centers can meet staffing demands if they’re not able to offer higher wages.