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The Child-Care Crunch in Washington State

How area families struggle to juggle career, personal goals and raising children

Darlena Cunha
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Published on: February 24, 2020

toddler girl looking at the camera with colorful background

Stacy O’Shea’s life is about to get much more expensive. She lives in Seattle and has a 4-year-old and  a newborn baby. She’s a registered nurse, and her husband works in commodities at a downtown location. While they had put their first child in a national chain day care located downtown, it cost them $2,200 a month. Adding a baby to that mix makes the cost nearly untenable. Not to mention the waiting list, which can be years long for an infant.

“I estimate we have spent about $85,000 on child care since my daughter started going, at around 5 months old,” says O’Shea. “That’s pretty ridiculous.”

Jennifer Hernandez lives with her four children in Olympia. She works full-time for the Department of Defense and her husband also works full-time. After her twins were born six years ago, she found the easiest child-care route was to hire a nanny.

“Finding a quality and reputable day care for two infants was difficult,” she says. “Availability was always an issue. I also would never have been able to work, as they would have had to come home with any slight fever, diarrhea or illness. The cost was also astronomical.”

But nannies can be hard to manage, as well. Hernandez says they’ve gone through four in the past year, despite paying them well. The family only needs morning and afternoon care, and those hours are not as desirable for nannies who are looking for full-time work.

Stacey Ferro stays at home with her two kids in North Bend, but not by choice. It’s just not cost-effective for her to continue working. She’s interviewed with the tech giants in the area — Microsoft and Amazon — but children become a stumbling block every time.

“I went to a university and my contribution to the workplace could be very significant, but you can tell in these interviews, they really don’t like mothers with young children,” says Ferro. “And do I want to take on a job just to afford to have someone else raise my children?”

Kim Wright lives with her four children in Lacey. Her husband works for Pierce County, and she is a state behavioral health program manager. She uses a licensed home-care facility for her kids, a facility that took her months to find. It hasn’t always been this way. Before her current job, Wright worked nights and weekends at Starbucks, and she did all the child care during the day. She and her husband switched duties when she was on the clock.

“If I had not gotten this job, I would have fallen back into stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I’ve been promoted several times, and there were a lot of opportunities for me, but, at that time, I was making $40,000.”

Wright says another facility they looked at cost $36,000 a year for her younger two children, and that’s more than half her current income.

All around the Puget Sound region, parents are struggling, juggling their work schedules, their personal dreams and their children. And these struggles are translating into monetary loss for businesses in the state. Research conducted by The Child Care Collaborative Task Force (CCCTF), formed by the Legislature found that 67 percent of Washington employers report absenteeism caused by child-care issues.

“We have no backup or help when our child is sick,” says O’Shea. “Not that we want to, but you can’t send your child to school with a fever, or various other health ailments like diarrhea or vomiting. One of us has to not go to work.”

We are in a real crunch. While people need care more than ever, there is less and less available. It all comes down to money.

Those child-related absences and turnover mean a $2 billion loss for companies, according to the CCCTF. More than half of all parents in the state either quit their job or switched to a part-time work schedule because of childcare issues, the report states.

“Staying home was a very hard choice, because I wanted to work; I hadn’t planned on sacrificing my career for this,” says Ferro. “It feels like nothing is going to be feasible for me other than freelancing from home or teaching, but I want to go back to what I was good at. Everything I’d make would pay for the child care itself.”

Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP, says many women quit working because they cannot afford child-care centers. As fewer people can afford them, fewer child-care centers and family-home providers are available for those in need.

“It’s shrunk because they don’t have paying customers. The people can’t afford to pay them, and the state won’t subsidize so they have to close,” says Ryan. “We are in a real crunch. While people need care more than ever, there is less and less available. It all comes down to money.”

piggy bank tipped over with a plastic toy baby reaching toward it

Parents simply aren’t getting enough help. While there are some state programs, very little money is allocated to help parents out, and those parents must meet rigid requirements, including being monetarily destitute, to receive aid.

Only 1 percent of Washington’s state budget is spent on early childhood education, according to Ryan. He says people have no idea how hard it is to qualify for that money.

“People are often surprised [by] what it means to be low income here,” says Ryan. “We’re talking 100 percent below the poverty line, which is in the $20,000s for a family of four.”

Despite that, there are thousands of kids not being served even at that low-income level. Ryan says the programs are stretched thin, there is high turnover, and pay for caregivers is abysmal right now.

“In order to take the burden off of parents, we need investment of tax dollars,” he says. “Parents can’t afford to pay the true cost of care and the state doesn’t help, so it’s both unaffordable and the quality suffers. It is the worst of both worlds.”

Ferro’s family is stuck in the wide gap between being able to afford child care and being poor enough to even attempt to receive any kind of help.

“We actually tried to apply to put our kids on the Washington health-care system, Apple [Health], but we were denied because John makes more than the poverty line,” she says. “The problem is, we make too much to qualify for any help but not enough to be able to afford any care on our own.”

Hernandez moved her children from daycare facilities because the quality of those facilities left her questioning her children’s safety.

“There are a lot of in-home care providers around military bases, but you really never know who you are sending your children to,” she explains. “Also, the quality of the people that work at these facilities is always hit or miss. The employees get paid so little, but the daycare centers charge colossal fees. The price is usually what drives people to find care in a private sector.”

Hernandez says finding high-quality early education was no easier.

“Preschool was also difficult for us. Finding two slots for preschool at a reputable facility was exhausting,” says Hernandez. “We ended up settling with only two half-days a week for $230 per week per child. It was not only expensive, but absolutely not worth it. Our twins learned nothing.”

Ryan is hoping things change during this legislative session. He says there is acknowledgment of the need this year, which is more than they have seen in the past. Multiple studies have shown the benefits of programs like Head Start and mandatory pre-K for young children.

Every day of life, I feel like I am inconvenienced due to lack of or quality of child care.

“Kids who don’t have those opportunities end up having to stay back in grades; they are less likely to graduate high school and college,” says Ryan. “Kids in Head Start are much less likely to get involved in the criminal justice system, as well.”

The little money that does go to early childhood education is being used to help the state rate providers, which is meant to help support childcare facilities to fix the quality issue.

“Every day of life, I feel like I am inconvenienced due to lack of or quality of child care. I have had to leave work the second I arrived because my nanny forgot to show up. The only reason I knew was because I have cameras in our home,” says Hernandez. “Day care is so expensive and forces our girls to get up three hours earlier than they normally do just to go sit in a facility and be bused to school.”

mother crouched down looking at her son on a city street with buildings in the background
Credit: Sai De Silva, Unsplash

Wright has also found good quality to be hard to pin down in area facilities.

“[Many facilities] are not up to the standards that I would be excited to drop my kids off every day. You have a sense that if you are paying $22,000 a year for a place, maybe it would take your kids outside or vacuum up after snacks.”

Washington state is currently rating providers, but Ryan says the problem is that people can’t afford high-quality care. He says these parents also need day-care facilities near them. They don’t have time to go on tours and sign up and wait out the waiting list in hopes of getting in. He says rating is the easy part.

“Ratings don’t cost a lot, and they do wonders for quality, but none of that matters if people can’t afford to go there,” says Ryan. “Accessibility is key. We need to bump up the child subsidy rates which could also lower the cost for more middle-class families who pay out of pocket.”

Currently, families are forced to find their own way, be that paying prices for facility care that rival college tuition, taking their children to private-home day cares, employing people inside their homes or sacrificing their own careers to stay home with their children because that’s the most cost-effective option.

“We talk in circles about it,” says O’Shea. “We have no plan at the moment. We have no other family or other support to help with any kind of child care, so logistics get tricky.”

Only with a solution that comes from the inside out will the childcare situation get better, says Ryan.

“Our tax system is really upside-down, which is a big cause of the problem,” he says. “Lower-income people are paying a disproportionate percentage of their income, where people who make more are not, and the state never has enough money.”

On the legislative docket are several bills that address this situation, including multiple finance and funding bills, several curriculum bills and a half-dozen early education bills. Until then, every parent knows the struggle is real.

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