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Child care challenges hinder economy

Star Beacon - 12/9/2023

Dec. 9—Child care is an issue that runs deep into workforce development challenges and the personal lives of families all over Ashtabula County and beyond.

The combined effects of low pay for child care workers, lack of state and federal funding and the ever-shifting needs of families have created a challenging situation for all involved, according to area child care administrators, parents and government officials.

Tammy McTrusty, owner of Kids Only Learning Center, said an employee received an offer to pay for a trip to Disney World for her whole family if the potential client could move up the center's waiting list.

The employee politely declined but the story indicates the desperation families are facing as they seek to work and provide safe child care for their children.

"People call crying," McTrusty said of the overall need that is difficult to meet because of the economic situations facing the industry. Other local day care providers shared stories of emotional parents not knowing what to do.

The federal government funneled a lot of money to the states and eventually to child care centers since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but those funds will be running out soon, leaving administrators with the difficult choice of raising prices or losing money.

McTrusty said the state of Ohio provides one of the lowest levels of funding for child care in the United States.

ABC Child Care Center Executive Administrator Larina Spring said the stabilization grants have been helpful and can be used for paying employees, utilities, rents and other costs of the centers.

They are administered through the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, which also regulates the industry.

McTrusty and Spring said they don't want to raise costs because families are presently struggling to pay for existing care, but can't fall behind financially.

Spring said it took a long time for many families to bring their children back to childcare but many have now done so.

"We have a waiting list," Spring said.

She said her center is blessed with long-term employees who can train newcomers, but finding people passionate and competent is not easy. Spring said the center has 48 full-time employees and seven that act as substitutes.

"More than half of my staff have been here more than 10 years," Spring said.

She said prices are going to have to rise as an economic necessity.

"This is the first time we have been operating at a loss," Spring said.

The economic impact of the child care issue is substantial, according to experts in the industry.

"All these people on the waiting list can't go to back to work," Spring said.

A recent work forces seminar, led by Bishara Addison, of Cleveland, indicated surveys showed that child care problems are one of the biggest challenges for people seeking employment.

"This is a workforce issue," said Ashtabula County Commissioner Kathryn Whittington, who also has grandchildren who need child care.

Whittington said she has been discussing child care issues with Shelby County Commissioner Julie Ehemann, who is passionate about the issue.

Ehemann said the state ranks on the bottom of funding for child care.

"Our legislators, for the most part, don't believe this is an issue," she said.

Ehemann said Shelby County officials earmarked some of their American Rescue Plan funds for education of employees and tried to work with people to open more facilities.

"Many women are not in the workforce because they can't find child care," she said.

McTrusty said her facility has a waiting list of 782. She said the industry faces the reduced workforce challenges that most employers are seeing and the more demands coming from the state.

She said programs designed to improve the quality of care also reduce the class size, which then exacerbates the staffing problem creating a circular cycle.

"People are tiring and they are quitting," McTrusty said.

McTrusty, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, has two family members prepared to eventually take over the business. She said she hopes to expand to provide more child care opportunities but the finances provide challenges.

McTrusty agrees state funding for child care is way below most states. She said the business works closely with Ashtabula County Children Services and Jobs and Family Services.

"We raised our rate for the first time in four years," she said.

Being on the receiving end of the desperate calls is not easy for those in the industry.

"They sit and cry and beg for child care," McTrusty said.

"I lay awake at night trying to figure out what I can do," she said.

The importance of child care is shown by the fact the fastest rate of brain growth for children occurs between birth and the age of 5, she said.

Linda Coblitz, executive director of After School Discovery, said her organization fills a unique niche in the process.

"We really fill the need for school age parents who are students of our district," she said.

She said it is also a service the Ashtabula Area City Schools asked for many years ago. Coblitz said it is also important for district employees.

"They can drop off [children] right on campus," she said of the service that operates out of the elementary school campus and serves about 80 students.

The service started in 2011. Coblitz said the operation has become increasingly difficult to staff. She said the child care program is also enriched by the other services provided to students in the district.

Another problem is what some parents must do because of economic issues and the need to work.

"People are leaving kids home alone because they can't afford to pay," Coblitz said.

Ashtabula County YMCA Child Care director Sherri Price said there are about 65 students, including 24 pre-school, involved in the YMCA center and more at three satellite operations at three elementary schools.

The Pymatuning Valley Local Schools are partnering with the YMCA and staffing is nearing completion, Price said. She said two other school related sites in the county are not operating because of work force issues.

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(c)2023 the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio)

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