Kim Sineath, who has been struggling to find new employees to staff her child care center, thought she finally found someone to hire.
But when Sineath gave her a call to offer her an interview, the woman who applied said she took a job at Ruby Tuesday instead because they offered her a $200 signing bonus.
Child care isn’t “an easy job, but it’s incredibly rewarding,” said Sineath, senior director of The Learning Pavilion. “And I hate that some people are missing out on that experience because we can’t properly, as a field and as a sector, pay them for how much work it really requires.”
As people begin to turn off their Zoom cameras and trickle back to brick-and-mortar offices, more parents need day care options. But a lack of staff is preventing some day cares in Tallahassee from accepting more children.
It’s not just locally. Across the country, day care operators are struggling to find staff. Hiring has always been an issue for the industry, as applicants have to complete a level 2 background check because they work with children.
The low pay and the long hours also prove difficult for the child care industry to find help. Average pay is only a bit over $25,000 yearly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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But coupled with the pandemic, these roadblocks have created a crisis in the child care industry.
Former child care workers are finding jobs in other industries that pay the same, if not more. Chipotle, for instance, raised its average wage to $15 in June, which is more than $31,000 annually.
Roman Fontenot has owned and operated Child Growth and Development, a day care on the northwest side of Tallahassee, since 1986.
Fontenot has never had a waitlist of prospective employees; he’s been able to keep some staff members for more than 20 years.
But this spring and summer, Fontenot said there was enough demand to expand the infant room from eight babies to 12. He couldn’t find anyone to hire.
And Sineath has a waitlist of 56 children at The Learning Pavilion. She said administration is jumping in to cover lunch breaks for staff.
Child care is one of the most underpaying industries, said Kenisha Thomas, owner and director of Sprouting Kids Academy on the west side of town. She’s heard of some day cares in town that pay minimum wage.
“This is a really really hard job,” she said. “We work under a tremendous amount of pressure every day.”
She said she hasn’t experienced a lack of staffing like other day cares because her starting pay is at $15 an hour and she provides health care options and paid holidays.
“You have to treat people like you want to be treated,” Thomas said. “I don’t want anybody who works for me to have their utility bill cut off.”
Staffing costs 80% of a child care center’s budget, said Sineath. To raise wages, most centers would have to raise tuition for parents. In Florida, the average cost for infant care per year is over $9,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
While the Biden administration is including $450 billion to support the child care industry in its $3.5 trillion spending package, Sineath said there’s going to have to be some sort of systemic change to value early childhood education as much as elementary, middle or high school. Kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading levels affect the city’s economy.
“When we’re not focusing on these kids before that age we’re doing a disservice to our community,” she said.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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