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A childcare crisis

Officials look to bonus program to help hire, retain childcare workers

Submitted photo A class of four-year old children at Riverview Early Childhood Center use brushes and paint to create art. The center, one of four in Hamilton County, is having a difficult time hiring and retaining workers. A bonus program has been proposed to help encourage childcare workers to join the staff at local facilities and stay in the job.

The childcare situation in Hamilton County is nearing a crisis. Childcare centers are struggling to find and retain staff to help keep those centers open and operating at full capacity.

A year ago, Hamilton County residents were surveyed about issues and concerns facing communities throughout the county. According to Cindy Im, Hamilton County Development director, one of the top concerns mentioned was finding affordable childcare.

“Affordable childcare is critical for the economic vitality of Hamilton County,” she told the board of supervisors Tuesday. “Iowa was facing a childcare crisis before the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of the state’s residents were estimated to live in a childcare desert.”

She added that the number of childcare programs listed under the Iowa Childcare Resource and Referral Center dropped 37 percent between 2014 and 2019. She pointed to data that nearly 50 percent of the childcare centers in the state had closed during the pandemic. She said the total number of licensed childcare centers — just over 1,590 as of January 2020 — had dropped to 820 by July.

“Here in Hamilton County we’re fortunate that none of our center have closed, but a few are on the brink of closing their doors without some financial support from the public and private sectors,” she said. The four childcare centers are Webster City Daycare, Riverview Early Childhood Center, both in Webster City, The Mighty Trojan Daycare in Blairsburg and Stratford Early Learning Center.

Im said that the hourly rate for childcare workers in Hamilton County averaged between $8.35 and $9 per hour.

“Centers are finding that their employees are quitting to take alternative employment with higher wages and benefits,” she said. “This has resulted in a critical shortage of childcare workers throughout the county.”

Staff shortages are causing Hamilton County childcare centers to operate at a fraction of capacity as they can not meet state-required levels child supervision.

That leaves area families facing difficult choices — drive to a more distant location for childcare or perhaps one parent may have to quit a job to stay home with children.

Im said that while raising the fees charged for to families for childcare would be logical, the rates are already higher than those in the surrounding counties.

“For most families, if more than 10 percent of the parents income is spent on childcare, other essentials have to be sacrificed,” she said.

She said Hamilton County Development has been working with Building Families to develop a plan to address the childcare crisis in the county.

Im requested $20,000 in emergency funding to aid childcare centers. The funds would help provide for a staff retention bonus program to attract and keep workers. She said she also hoped that annual funds could later be provided to continue.

McKinley Bailey, executive director of Building Families, said he was glad to see the partnership with Hamilton County Development and the childcare committee.

“It’s good to see these collaborations coalesce,” he said.

Bailey said Building Families has been working on a childcare worker bonus plan.

“We’ve been working for maybe three months to try and figure out what we could do with the funds we have to improve the retention of childcare workers and also to recruit new workers,” he said.

None of the Hamilton County childcare centers are operating at capacity as they do not have enough employees to meet required staffing levels.

“That’s led to the waiting lists doubling in most cases,” he said. “There’s not enough staff to use all the space in the centers.”

Bailey said his board just approved a bonus program which would allow centers to pay a $150 sign on bonus to childcare workers who average between 20 to 29 hours of work at the end of their first four weeks. The worker must have no unexcused absences during that time, according to Bailey. A $200 bonus would be available for workers who average 30 or more hours per week at the end of the first four weeks with no unexcused absences.

Retention bonuses could be paid on a quarterly basis to workers who average 29 hours a week or more with a $500 cap per quarter. The program outlines that the bonus could be reduced if there are unscheduled absences during the quarter or eliminated if there are more than four unscheduled absences. COVID-19 related absences would be be considered unscheduled, according to the Building Families bonus plan.

Bailey said the amount allotted to each center would vary based on:

¯ contributions to the bonus program by employers or local governments in their community;

¯ the number of children being served by the center on Oct. 1, 2020

¯ the number of children receiving childcare assistance that attend the facility

Childcare centers would be required to provide quarterly accurate staffing reports in October, January, April and June, and would submit a list of eligible staff at the beginning and end of the bonus period. The centers would also have to provide documentation of all bonus payments through pay statements or copies of checks issued. A staff listing to determine turn over during the year would be required along with the reason the staff member is leaving.

Building Families has a contract with Childcare Resources and Referrals which will help administer the program and verify that the center is using the funds for bonuses with the appropriate payroll taxes.

The program was modeled after a similar project created through the Polk County Early Childhood Iowa Area Board.

“They’ve done this for three years and in two of the three years they’ve had retention rates that were double the national average,” he said. “So we’ve seen this work.”

The Polk County program has been providing $400 bonuses per quarter.

“We need to get somewhere close to make that work,” he said.

Bailey said Building Families contribution to the bonus program would total about $28,500 spread across three counties and eight childcare centers. That would equate to a $65,000 funding gap over the next 18 months in order to reach the $400 bonuses.

Doug Follmann, chairman of the county childcare committee, said they have looked at programs across the state.

“We don’t have to go too far down the road — Story County — to really look at a funding solution that has been used since 1985 to support nonprofits, including childcare centers. The city of Ames, the county, United Way and Iowa State Student Government have come together to fund childcare,” Follmann said.

Contributions in Story County for this fiscal year will include $190,000 from the county, $228,000 from the City of Ames and about $250,000 from United Way, according to Follmann.

“They’ve figured out a model that works for them,” he said. “That’s the kind of model that we’re looking out to implement in Hamilton County to assist the childcare centers.”

The supervisors said they would consider the emergency funding request, but no decision was made Tuesday.

In tomorrow’s Daily Freeman-Journal: Area childcare centers discuss the challenges they face with staffing.

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