Wyomissing child care center says help is needed to address staffing shortages

Jackie Kirby, standing inside the lobby of Learning Ladder Academy in Wyomissing Monday morning, couldn’t have been more effusive with her praise.

The staff at the child care center has been amazing for the nearly two years she has sent her kids there, she told state Sen. Judy Schwank, who had stopped by the center for a visit.

They helped Levi, now 4, overcome struggles he was having with his speech. Two-year-old Ezra has seen vast improvements in issues he was having with his behavior.

Both boys love the center, Kirby said.

“Levi cried every day when I dropped him off for the first three weeks, now he cries when I pick him up to go home,” she said.

Sometimes the boys ask her if they get to go to school on a Saturday and she has to tell them no, Kirby said.

“They say, ‘Are you sure?'” she said with a laugh.

And the center has been incredibly accommodating to her schedule, the single mother said. Her work as an at-home nurse means she sometimes has to pick up the boys at 3 pm and other times at 5 pm — and Learning Ladder has made that possible.

“I couldn’t be the nurse I am without the center,” she said.

But Kirby knows not everyone is as lucky as she is. Finding quality child care can be difficult, particularly as centers like Learning Ladder deal with staffing shortages.

Schwank is keenly aware of the situation.

“I wish every parent could have the same experience,” she said.

That’s the reason the Ruscombmanor Township Democrat visited the center Monday. Along with taking some time to read a story to a small group of enthralled kids, she spoke to the centers’ owners, staff and parents about the challenges they’re facing.

And it turns out the challenges are severe.

Staff shortages

Learning ladder is serving 111 kids but could be serving many more, manager Steven Goodhart told Schwank.

The center is licensed for up to 179 kids. But because of staffing shortages, families find themselves faced with waitlists when trying to sign up for care.

“Affording to have teachers is our biggest challenge,” he said.

The child care industry, like so many other sectors, is struggling with an ongoing worker shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, Goodhart said. And centers like Learning Ladder just simply don’t have enough money to attract candidates.

Michelle Wunder, Pennsylvania Child Care Association Ambassador, said the average starting salary for a child care work in the state is just shy of $11 per hour.

“It’s just the saddest thing,” she said.

With those kinds of wages, job hunters often aren’t interested in the complex and challenging task of providing child care. It has led to widespread shortages across Pennsylvania, Wunder said.

A survey of 994 centers across the state showed that 91% have staffing shortages, with a total of just shy of 7,000 open staff positions.

In Berks County, Wunder said, 41 centers responded to the survey. Of those, 95% said they had staffing shortages, with a total of 270 positions open.

Both across the state and in Berks the top reason given for the difficulty in finding candidates is low wages and a lack of benefits.

Learning ladder pays a bit more than the state average but still has struggled to find staff. Goodhart said the center had to raise salaries to stay competitive, a move that has led to the center’s annual payroll increasing by about $320,000 from what it was before the pandemic.

Amy Templin, the director at Learning Ladder, said the regulations child care centers face also make hiring difficult. For example, prospective employees must provide four separate background clearances. The process can take two to three weeks, and many candidates aren’t willing to wait that long.

“They can go to Walmart, they can go to Target, and they can start the next day,” she said.

Tight finances

Trying to keep wages competitive has made the already financially difficult world of child care even more so, Goodhart said.

Goodhart said centers that offer infant care, like Learning Ladder, operate those programs at a deficit. And securing classroom supplies has become tougher and more costly.

And if a center wants to provide a high-quality program for kids — Learning Ladder has the top four-star rating from state’s Keystone Stars program — that involves added cost, too.

“It’s expensive to operate at that level,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart said Learning Ladder has been trying to find ways to deal with financial shortfalls.

They’ve had to get rid of their lunch program, meaning parents have to pack meals for their kids. Fees for processing credit card payments are being passed onto parents. And the weekly tuition has been raised by $10.

Federal COVID stimulus money has helped, Goodhart said. But that’s not a permanent fix.

If nothing changes, Goodhart said, Learning Ladder likely will have to implement significant tuition increases in the fall.

Kirby said she understands the bind Learning Ladder is in.

“I’m already paying over half my paycheck for my two children, and I’m willing to say that,” she said. “I’m not excited for the fall, but I’m not going anywhere.”

A dire need

The challenges facing child care centers are creating challenges for parents seeking their services.

Jessica Allred said she started looking for child care when she was seven or eight months pregnant, looking in February to enroll her newborn in September. Luckily, she was able to find a spot at Learning Ladder for her son, Arthur.

Totally isolated because of the COVID pandemic, Arthur was in need of socialization. He got it at Learning Ladder.

“We were looking for a place that was welcoming, that felt like a family,” she said. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

But, Allred said, she knows not everyone has been as lucky as her family has been.

“We want quality care opportunities for everybody,” she said.

Kirby said much the same, telling Schwank that she has two coworkers who have been desperately searching for child care.

“They’re both on the waiting list here,” she said. “They ask me about it all the time.”

They’re far from alone.

Wunder said that because of staffing shortages across the state, about 32,400 children are on waiting lists for child care centers, including about 1,400 in Berks.

Will the state step up?

Schwank said it is clear that child care centers need more help from the state, and she has an idea how that should be done.

“We need to subsidize child care the same way we do public education,” she said. “Something has to be different, not just relying on stimulus money coming in.”

Schwank said she is pushing for direct state subsidies for child care centers during discussion about the state’s budget, which has to be passed by the end of June. She said now is a good time to look into the idea because the state is flush with cash from federal COVID relief packages.

The state provides basic education subsidies to public school districts based on their student population and factors like the number of economically disadvantaged students.

Wunder said her organization is calling for the state to invest $115 million as a wage supplement for child care workers, which would allow child care centers to increase the rates they pay staff by $2 per hour.

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