Community meeting addresses impacts of child care crisis
October 6, 2022
Saturday morning a group of concerned Petersburg residents met at the Wright Auditorium to participate in the second Childcare Community Café to address the childcare crisis affecting the local workforce, businesses, families, and economy.
The meeting, hosted by the SHARE (Supporting Health Awareness, Resilience, and Education) Coalition, began with a viewing of a 23-minute video entitled "Voices for a Better Future: Community Impacts of Childcare in Petersburg," followed by a community discussion featuring a panel of local stakeholders and moderated by Becky Turland, a longstanding coalition member. Topics included the lack of childcare options and its effect on employers and families, the well documented benefits of early childhood education for children and communities, the pervasive attitude that childcare workers are glorified babysitters and the low wages that make a career in early childcare education more of a passion project than a way to make a living.
While the childcare crisis is happening on the national level, "Voices for a Better Future: Community Impacts of Childcare in Petersburg," is specifically about Petersburg's childcare struggles. The film was funded by The Petersburg Community Foundation and completed by the Early Childhood subgroup of the SHARE Coalition. Find the
full video at https://tinyurl.com/4885dxc8
To assess the problem, SHARE conducted the "Petersburg Childcare 2021 Needs Survey," distributing one survey to the community at large and a second to childcare workers employed during the previous two years. The film laid out their findings and personalized them with excerpts from interviews with local parents in the workforce and their employers. Quotes in this article are from both the video and Saturday's community conversation following its viewing.
The survey found that over the previous two years Petersburg's childcare workforce has seen a turnover rate of eighty-one percent. Rate of pay, work environment, and lack of benefits were the top three reasons for leaving. Of those still working in childcare, thirty percent relied on state or federal assistance programs and/or a second job to make ends meet for their families. Half of local childcare and pre-school staff relied on Medicaid for health insurance.
Hammer & Wikan General Manager Jim Floyd wants all Petersburg residents to understand that, "...not enough childcare affects all aspects of the community. As an employer, there's a lack of workforce. We had to limit the hours of our facilities. You know groceries are essential, but we can't provide essential services because we don't have our workforce – and daycare, pre-school, early childhood education is a critical part of that equation."
Forty-four percent of guardians surveyed said they are currently not working due to lack of childcare. Of those still working, thirty-three percent have been late to work and fifty percent have had to leave work early due to lack of childcare. For some age groups, guardians face a wait of one to two years for a spot in daycare or an after-school program.
Katie Holmlund, co-founder of Kinderskøg Nature Program, Youth Program Coordinator for Petersburg Medical Center, and Vice-President of Petersburg Schools' Board of Education, said, "In Petersburg we have a severe lack of availability in childcare. It was a problem before Covid, Covid just made it worse. I think it puts undue stress on families."
Harbormaster Glorianne DeBoer says, "As a single parent with two children, childcare is probably my number one concern, hour by hour, it's my number one issue. As a supervisor, there's been this underlying worry that childcare for my staff will be unavailable. It can really impact the daily operations, so that is a constant concern that we as a team are worried about. I think a cornerstone of our community is taking care of our children."
Elementary School Principal Heather Conn thinks, "Sustaining a healthy and reliable childcare environment, one with enough space for these kids, is super vital to their health and safety. What you have in these childcare facilities is a positive place where they can grow and learn. If we want resilient children, if we want these 3, 4, and 5-year olds to come back to Petersburg and be productive citizens, then we really need to be sure they have the proper childcare, the proper education, to get them to those points."
Elementary school counselor Rachel Etcher added, "I want to bring an awareness to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences). When a child has experienced a trauma or multiple traumas, it can affect them for the rest of their lives. They have a greater likelihood of suffering mental health and substance abuse issues. And, though we may not be able to prevent childhood trauma, we can do a lot as childcare providers to build resilience early on. Resilience is built through relationships and when a kid has more relationships with adults, relationships that are strong and supportive, with people who can connect them and their families to resources, you are building a strong support system that helps them work through the traumas and substantially decreases the chances of them having mental health or substance abuse issues later. I think that a lot of people don't make the connection that supportive adults, oftentimes childcare workers, have that important role that can make such a huge difference in a kid's life."
Petersburg Children's Center board member Camie Gillen added, "I want to chime in, because my son has actually experienced this and, if he hadn't had the stability of having reliable childcare and his teachers loving him and caring for him, he would have very different behavioral issues today. So, it does make a huge difference, having that care and that stability."
At the time of the survey the average annual cost of childcare in Petersburg was $15,706 - $6,854 more than the annual college tuition at a state school. However, that expense is not translating into a living wage for childcare providers. MIT's Living Wage Calculator for Alaska states a single adult with no children must earn $16.72 an hour, but the local average wage for a childcare worker was $12.72 an hour with no benefits - that's twenty-two percent less than a school paraprofessional's starting wage, and close to half of a teacher's starting salary (both jobs with benefits). Loss of productivity due to childcare issues costs the State of Alaska an estimated $165 million a year, according to a 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Report.
PCC Director Sharlay Mamoe says, "We are not babysitting. We are not just watching your kid while you're at work. We are teaching your children. It's a very important job that we do all day and sometimes I feel like we are under-appreciated."
Nurse Helen Boggs thinks, "It would be nice to make caring for young children a true career where caregivers are getting compensated for all of the hard work they're doing, spending so much time with our children doing meaningful activities."
Glorianne DeBoer agrees, "It all boils down to how we value our childcare providers."
Heather Conn believes, "It's a small thing, but I really think we should change the title from childcare worker to educator. They are educators. They are raising our children. I think they should be as valued as our teachers. We should all be in the same category, because we all have the same goal."
Mamoe pointed out that the many financial factors of running and maintaining a childcare facility are especially expensive in a small remote town. "We try to keep our parents' costs relatively low because we understand that childcare is already expensive. But there are always expenses outside of the expected ones, like insurance and food costs, like maintenance issues. Burdening parents with the costs doesn't work. If your paycheck is going straight to childcare, why work?"
Audience member Kurt Wohlhueter agreed, saying, "This is not just a community issue. This is a state issue and it's a national issue. I think that's what we need to start leaning on. I think that's where we need to put our efforts. We need to be leaning on the state for funding for early childhood support. Ideas are great, but we need funding."
Katie Holmlund added, "This can be an invisible issue. Our decision makers don't always recognize that this is a problem. Decision makers tend to be upper middle-class and upper-class individuals and it's important to recognize that their experience of childcare is drastically different than that of some of our lower income families. So here's a stat from the state: sixty-one percent of lower income families experienced work changes due to child care concerns, while only sixteen percent of our higher income families experienced that. And when those sixteen percent are the ones serving on our elected boards, are the ones who have the time to advocate on the state level but don't see the problem, we are stuck in the mud in trying to make change. It's going to take all of us voting, all of us lending our voices and our stories to make that impact with our local elected officials and higher up with the state."
Moving forward, the Borough Assembly has created a Childcare Task Force that will be the driving force behind furthering the discussion. Becky Turland and the SHARE team will be doing all they can to help. Turland said, "One thing that our Early Childhood Sub-group would like to see the task force pursue is an economic impact study of childcare in our own community. Childcare is truly a community concern, whether you have children in care or not, and we believe the results of that study will help any community members still on the fence to see why more clearly."