Local governments steer money to Juneau child care centers struggling to find workers

Tim Lopez skates with his daughter Samantha Lopez as a way to pass the time with her on March 17, 2020, in downtown Juneau. Typically the 2-year-old would have been at a child care facility in the middle of the day, but most in Juneau had closed. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Juneau’s local governments are steering extra money to some child care providers.

These providers are having an especially hard time finding and keeping workers in the pandemic labor market. Being short-staffed means they can’t enroll as many kids as they have space for, and that often means running at a loss. Even with higher wages and bonuses that government grants helped make possible, the outlook is not good.

For example, Little Eagles and Ravens Nest Child Care Center opened in February of 2020 and has continuously advertised for several openings.

Pay starts at a little over $17 an hour, which is on the high end for this kind of work in Juneau. And unlike typical, privately owned child care businesses, these entry-level jobs come with tribal government benefits.

“We now offer professional development courses and classes that we pay for. As well as, you know, university credits that we would pay for. We have health insurance, life insurance, retirement,” said Executive Director Jamie Shanley. “We’re employees of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, so our benefits are wonderful. We have holiday pay, paid leave, family leave — and we still can’t find people. So it’s very grim.”

Since October, she’s even been able to advertise a temporary, $4 per hour bonus. It’s federal stimulus money going through the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She said she could use five more employees, but hasn’t gotten a single application for months.

“There’s nothing,” Shanley said.

Other child care providers in Juneau don’t enjoy the tribe’s support and can’t be as competitive. Discovery Preschool, for example, is offering a $500 hiring bonus, but for a job that starts at $13 an hour.

Discovery Preschool and others do get financial assistance through a program the Juneau Assembly started last year, run by the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children.

Blue Shibler is the nonprofit’s executive director. She said before the city started paying stipends to qualified child care providers, the average starting wage for entry-level child care workers in town was about $11 an hour. Now it’s about $13.

“Which is still not great. I mean, it’s not even competitive with McDonald’s right now,” Shibler said.

Juneau’s local McDonald’s doesn’t advertise pay for its entry-level workers, but according to third-party labor websites like ZipRecruiter and GlassDoor, it’s around $12 or $13.

Local child care jobs usually don’t come with any benefits.

“Not even paid sick days,” Shibler said. “You look at no paid sick days in the middle of a global pandemic? It’s not a real attractive field to enter.”

A normal business would probably raise the price of its services to cover its costs. But with child care, it’s easy to price-out your customers. If child care costs more than a parent can earn working, then why work?

“Child care as a business model is in market failure. It does not function in a business market,” Shibler said.

This is why the city stepped in and started giving child care businesses grants last year. The city initially paid for it with CARES Act money, then kept it going this year with local money. But the labor problem is tripping up that program, too, because it’s based on the number of children a provider serves.

Shibler said every provider participating in the city’s grant program is under-enrolled, even though most have waitlists.

“So they have families wanting to fill their empty spots. But they’re not able to take any additional children because they can’t find staff,” she said.

It’s a circular problem.

“I mean, most child care centers, they have overhead that doesn’t change much if they have fewer children,” Shibler said. “Their rent is still due. Their bills are still due.”

Right now, the city’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars left over in unspent child care subsidies. On Monday, the Juneau Assembly had a brief discussion about what to do with the leftover money. Assembly member Michelle Hale asked to send it along to participating child care centers as if they were operating at capacity.

“Everything we can do to help the child care providers right now is just critical,” Hale said.

There were no objections.

A lot more federal relief for child care is on its way, though state administrators have been slow to release it.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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