Start Early. Start well.

July 29, 2021

Providers Scramble to Find Enough Staff to Meet Demand for Child Care

woman holding toddlerA smaller labor pool, along with competition from retail and food service employers like McDonald’s that are raising hourly pay, makes it harder to attract and retain workers. Without enough teachers, child care programs may not be able to enroll new families.

By Erin Duffy

Enrollment is picking back up again at the Imagination Station child care centers in Omaha.


There are the usual waitlists for infants and toddlers, said Shayne McGuire, director of operations. But families of preschool-age children seeking care will have to wait a little longer: there’s not enough teachers for that age group.

“It’s odd to see those empty spaces in our classrooms that we know we could fill,” Donna McGuire, owner and executive director, said.

More families seeking care seems like welcome news after the last year.

But that pent-up demand is colliding with a child care crunch in some cities and states. Parents are being confronted with the larger structural issues that have long plagued America’s child care system: worker shortages, rapid turnover, and razor-thin profit margins that make it difficult for providers to stay open.


A smaller labor pool, along with competition from retail and food service employers like McDonald’s that are raising hourly pay, makes it harder to attract and retain workers. Without enough teachers, child care programs may not be able to enroll new families.


“I think the pandemic has really shined a light on how this industry is part of the infrastructure of our economy,” said Adrianne Agulla, who owns four Hamilton Heights Child Development Centers in Omaha and Lincoln. “There has to be more investment made in it … The supply of workers has taken such a beating for years and years, and we have to figure out a way to make this a prestigious thing to do with your life and career path.”


Families are seeking out child care again, more than one year after the pandemic turned the world—and the early childhood field—upside down.


Learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of and need for reliable, affordable child care.

Child care providers from Oklahoma City to Sitka, Alaska, are reporting higher demand as more workers return to the office, according to interviews and news reports.

Adrianne AgullaAdrianne Agulla

For Agulla, business began to pick up again in January. While spots for infant care typically go fast, lately she’s fielding more inquiries for toddlers. Some parents had babies shortly before the pandemic and worked out care arrangements with family members. Keeping their child home and around fewer people seemed like the safer bet. 


“They stayed home with Grandma while they were a baby and Grandma felt comfortable doing that,” Agulla said. But now, “Grandma can’t keep up with a 2-year-old.”


It’s a marked difference from spring 2020, when the arrival of COVID-19 almost cratered her business, Hamilton Heights Child Development Centers.


Families were fearful of exposing their kids to the virus and worried about job security, so they pulled their children out. The four Hamilton Heights centers in Omaha and Lincoln can take roughly 575 kids total, but by the third week in March 2020, only about 90 children remainedjust 15% of peak capacity.


Imagination Station was similarly decimated. Within the span of a week and a half in March, its child care centers in Omaha went from waiting lists for child care spots to 12% of its licensed capacity. Faced with declining enrollment and COVID-imposed limits on class sizes, they decided to close one location and consolidate another and laid off 50 teachers and other staff, Donna McGuire said.


“We came to the conclusion that we couldn’t sustain paying rent and mortgages and had to lose a program,” she said. “It was a struggle.”


Fast forward 15 months, and the outlook is brighter. But they could care for more kids if they could find more staff, McGuire said in June.


Parents who shifted to remote work quickly discovered that “it’s hard, it’s hard to concentrate” with younger kids home, said Janet Herzog, executive director of the Midwest Child Care Association.


Herzog and multiple providers said parents are increasingly asking about part-time care options as they and their employers work out flexible schedules. Not all providers offer part-time care, though—it can be tricky for providers with limited spots to make that math work.


And some states may emerge from the worst of the pandemic with fewer child care slots.


In Nebraska alone, more than 200 child care providers closed in 2020, and not enough new businesses have taken their place, according to a recent legislative report that the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska contributed to.


“The Buffett Institute is working with partners across the state to address some of the fundamental cracks in the system—such as low pay, career ladders for professionals, and engaging the early childhood workforce itself in problem solving,” said Susan Sarver, the Institute’s director of workforce planning and development.


In 2020, the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission released its report, Elevating Nebraska's Early Childhood Workforce.


“There are no simple answers and we tackle all aspects of the problem—pay for professionals, qualifications of the workforce, and public investment in early care and education,” Sarver said.


Wendy Leahy considers herself fortunateher Sunshine Kids Daycare made it through the pandemic. The families who rely on her for child care remained employed and most continued sending their kids while they worked from home.


But if you’re a parent trying to secure a spot at her home-based program in southwest Omaha anytime soon, good luck. She’s currently full with eight kids and doesn’t anticipate having any open slots until fall 2023, illustrating how tight the supply of available child care can be. 


“I had a mom who found out she was pregnant and told me even before she told her husband,” Leahy said.


Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.

Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at

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