Three Millennial working moms share their childcare challenges.
by Ana Welsh, business editor
There I was, newborn daughter on my lap, trying to find a placement for her in Main Line daycare centers. Call after call, the admissions directors gently scolded or out right laughed at me. “Oh honey, you have to call us when you find out you’re pregnant,” a childcare center director said sympathetically while chuckling . “Our waitlist is currently 12 months.”
Granted, I had just moved to Wayne and didn’t know the lay of the Main Line land. But the same thing happened to Laura Manion, who was born and raised in Chester County. Manion became hyper-aware of the childcare crisis when she gave birth to her first child a few months after starting her job as CEO and president of Chester County Chamber of Commerce.
“The original plan was for my son to start daycare on November 1, and when he was still on a waiting list and I needed to get back to work, I had to get creative,” Manion said. “I had my son’s pack ‘n play in the corner of my office, and I’d rotate between bringing him with me or attempting to work from home.”
Havertown’s Jessica Gehring learned her lesson with her first child. “I told my child’s school director that I was pregnant before I told my mom,” said Gehring, a marketing executive and mother of two with a third on the way. “The waitlist was nine months if your child wasn’t the sibling of a student.”
Chester County and the Main Line are known for having surpluses of wealth, culture and education. So why do we have a deficit of childcare options? Instead, local parents weigh the difficult options of paying expensive nannies, attracting sought-after babysitters and getting on long waiting lists for quality childcare centers.
Reliable, affordable childcare is not a new need in the US. Women entered the workforce in droves more than 50 years ago, leading to the creation of the daycare industry for infants and toddlers. While the problem has been around for a long time, it became more complex during and after the pandemic. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 16,000 childcare centers closed during the pandemic. They either didn’t reopen or opened at lower capacities and limited hours.
Childcare is also expensive. Child Care Aware of America’s January 2022 survey showed that infant care costs an average of $12,152 per year in PA. Care for toddlers averages $11,557 per year while care for one 4-year-old child is $10,150.
All of that adds to the mental stress of working parents doing their best to provide their children with education and enrichment in their early years. “We don’t have backup childcare if someone gets sick. I don’t have parents nearby. I have no one to take care of them, so I have to juggle,” said Gehring. “It’s insanely stressful trying to be a mom and an employee at the same time. Those are two totally different hats. You can’t use your brain the same way and it’s not fair to either situation. “
Gehring isn’t alone. A March 2023 report from Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission showed that 56% of PA parents report being late for work due to childcare struggles. Half or more report missing full days of work, leaving work early, or being distracted at work by childcare issues. The same study revealed that PA families rely on a patchwork of childcare arrangements, including formal home-based child care (39%), formal center-based care (32%), and informal care (21%).
Some families, like mine, opt to go the nanny or au pair route. But that has gotten more complex, too, because the nanny/au pair market is highly competitive. Finding a good nanny is truly a work of art and the going rate keeps increasing. I found my nanny through Facebook mom groups. One of them, Babysitters Club of the Main Line, no longer allows discussions about payment. The group gets over a hundred requests a day, according to the administrator, and screens each person prior to allowing them into the group.
If demand is high for childcare, why don’t more centers open? Because they aren’t easy businesses to run. Regulation, employee turnover and a host of other issues make it difficult to operate day centers in PA, said Angela Bruno. A mother of three, Bruno opened Kids Clubhouse of the Main Line in Wayne in 2019 and, despite the pandemic, the business is thriving. (My kids go there and love it.)
One of Bruno’s secrets to success: investing in her employees to maintain a low staff turnover rate in a high turnover industry. “Most of our teachers have been with us for two years or longer,” Bruno said. “Our pay starts at $17 per hour and we do our best to give our teachers what they need, even with a limited budget.” That rate is well above $13.95 per hour, which equals $32,855 per year, the average base pay for daycare teachers in PA, according to job search website Indeed.
“All of our teachers have early education degrees yet are not paid like teachers who have the same degrees,” said Bruno. “We don’t have a union to fight for our needs. You don’t see childcare centers going on strike. Teachers are mostly women, and we know we’d be hurting our children in that process.”
Bruno also said that running a childcare center requires heavy administrative work. “One of the most frustrating things for owners and directors is the amount of constant [regulatory] changes,” said Bruno. “It feels like every week, we get a long email from the state that I have to read several times to understand what is changing and how it affects me. A lot of regulations have purposes but a lot of it is super time consuming.”
Manion is trying to create solutions that resolve issues faced by parents and business owners. In March 2023, she testified at the Children and Youth Services Committee in Harrisburg. “The good news is that there are so many leaders and elected officials interested in finding common ground and solutions,” she said.
Manion believes our childcare crisis is actually an economics issue. She and registered lobbyist Alex Rahn, vice president of Wanner Associates, advocate four paths to relief for working parents and childcare employees.
- Public/private partnerships – Local businesses could partner with or even provide their own childcare facility on-site. From my own experience, I know that this is very popular in New York City. Manion cited a new Kentucky law that allows businesses to match a certain portion of their employee’s childcare cost in return for a tax benefit.
- Childcare tax credits for parents – This would relieve some of the financial burden of childcare, potentially allowing some parents to return to the workforce.
- Regulatory reform – By streamlining some regulations, government can put the emphasis on caring for the child, making it more attractive for business owners to open and operate childcare centers.
- Recruitment and retention enhancement – Increasing compensation packages for childcare employees enhances their engagement rate, resulting in longer retention and more consistent care for children.
“This is a real opportunity for the business community to work with our childcare providers and government officials toward a common goal: investing in our children and future workforce,” Manion said. “This issue transcends partisanship. We need to prevent a mass exodus of childcare workers by putting resources and capital into them and their businesses. Investment is key to the success of our children and our economy.”
Will our leaders create real change, or will it take a few more decades to resolve this issue? When will decision makers finally put long-lasting legislation into place so that working parents can enjoy parenthood? Because before we know it, our kids will be in elementary school. The timeless saying remains true. “The days are long, but the years fly by.”
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