New survey findings from the Buffett Institute underscore that for many child care providers, the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a struggle to survive. "If parents don't have child care, they can't work," a Lincoln provider said.
By Erin Duffy
As the director of a child care program trying to hire staff, Dana Sutton faces a formidable foe: the Costco warehouse 10 minutes away.
Sutton has worked in child care for two decades. She can’t remember a job market as bad as last year’s.
At Zac’s Place at Cornerstone Christian Church in Lincoln, several workers couldn’t handle the stress of caring for children whose worlds were turned upside down by a pandemic. Other applicants were lured away by better pay, like Costco’s offer of roughly $18 per hour.
“As a small business, I can’t do that,” Sutton said.
She’s finally hired a dedicated few, but she could use more: without enough staff, families who call Zac’s Place seeking a spot for their baby often end up on a waitlist.
“Child care is the linchpin to the local economy,” Sutton said. “If parents don’t have child care, they can’t work.”
Sutton isn’t an outlier. New survey findings from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska underscore that for many child care providers, the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a struggle to survive.
Caring for and teaching young children who have big feelings and lots of energy is a difficult and frequently low-paid job. But the survey responses show the pandemic heightened that difficulty and increased the pressure of being paid a low wage by adding quarantines, dwindling enrollment, and the specter of illness into the mix.
Here's what providers told us: They post job openings that attract few to no applicants in a tight job market. They lose income when parents pull their children or a toddler’s cough leads to classroom closures. And too many are exiting the field entirely, leaving fewer educators for Nebraska’s youngest learners.
The survey, the Institute’s third since March 2020, garnered responses from more than 750 providers. They work in centers, in-home programs, and preschools in cities like Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island, and small, rural towns like Curtis and Pawnee City.
Their experiences paint a picture of a field on the brink:
• Two-thirds of providers lost income in the last year.
• Nearly all respondents who employ staff—92%—have trouble hiring. Of those, almost four in five reported no one was applying. Two-thirds indicated they couldn’t offer competitive pay. In Nebraska, the average hourly wage for child care workers is $12.31, while signs at stores and fast-food restaurants routinely offer $15 per hour to start.
• Turnover is rampant. Nearly 70% of respondents reported that staff weren’t switching to another child care job—they were leaving the field entirely. Turnover is expensive for employers and hard on children and families who form close bonds with their caregivers.
• Physical and financial health are intertwined: over half of providers had to temporarily close their programs due to COVID-19 exposures or cases. They feared getting sick or infecting children and families.
• The providers who responded to the survey appear to have contracted COVID-19 at a high rate—more than half have had COVID-19 at least once, compared to one-fourth of Nebraskans. Child care providers cannot work from home or physically distance from the small children they diaper and feed. When providers shut down due to illness, families scramble for backup care.
• There are long-term implications to having a portion of the state’s early childhood workforce sickened by COVID-19: some are dealing with lingering symptoms weeks after their initial infection.
Child care workers are resilient. They are dedicated to their jobs and engage in self-care to stay healthy. But dedication alone won’t pay the mortgage or buy groceries.
Public and private investments can make a difference. Nearly nine in 10 survey respondents received COVID-19 aid. Providers largely used these funds on essentials: payroll, rent, utilities.
But Nebraska’s early childhood system needs sustained funding beyond one-time grants or infusions of recovery funds. Educators needs policymakers to pay attention and propose solutions to their low wages and lack of health care benefits or paid sick leave.
The researchers behind the COVID-19 surveys, the Institute’s Kate Gallagher, Alexandra Daro, and Kristen Cunningham, said it best: “We need to care for those who care for the youngest Nebraskans.”
Erin Duffy is a digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org