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Childcare centers struggle with staffing, competitive wages

There’s a crisis developing in Hamilton County and, in fact, all around the state and nation.

Childcare centers are struggling to find and keep staff. Wages at Hamilton County child centers range from $8.35 to $9 per hour with few to no benefits.

Many childcare workers have found they can make more at fast food restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses.

There are four large childcare centers in the county — Webster City Daycare and Riverview Early Childhood Center, both in Webster City, Stratford Early Learning Center in Stratford, and The Mighty Trojan Daycare in Blairsburg. Officials with these centers say hiring and retaining employees is the greatest challenge they face.

“The Stratford ELC is currently operating at about two-thirds of our licensed capacity. We could handle more children in the facility, but we don’t have enough adults to serve the children. Very few people want to work in childcare,” Catherine Bergman, director, said.

The center cares for about 20 children per day, though that number fluctuates throughout the week, according to Bergman. The facility is licensed for 55 between the after school program and the daycare. “We currently do not have enough staff to serve the licensed capacity. It’s all I can do to have enough adults to service the 20 or so who attend,” she said. “In fact, there was one day in October in which we could not open because there were not enough staff members to care for the children who were scheduled.

On another day Bergman was able to bring in a volunteer to help. One staff member has a child with a health condition, and the staff member can only work during school hours; this prevents her from working a full 8-hour shift on normal days or none at all on no-school days. Others are going to college or high school so are only available part-time.”

Before COVID-19, the center used retired people as volunteers. That allowed staff members to take a break or to sit with the preschool children during rest time or rock infants to sleep.

“But, once the pandemic hit, those volunteers couldn’t risk their health or that of their spouse to donate their time and talents,” Bergman said.

Stratford ELC has been open non-stop through the pandemic as many of the parents who bring their children there are essential workers who rely on childcare.

“Our community needs childcare in order to remain vital; our young parents rely on the service to be able to work their jobs. Without childcare parents cannot work, and without work they can’t pay their bills. In today’s world both parents must hold a job in order to make ends meet,” said Bergman.

Hiring staff continues to be difficult, the director said. They have very few applicants applying for positions at the center.

“People are not applying for jobs in the childcare industry because the pay is dismal, there are no benefits, and the job is hard,” she said.

Rosie Messerly of Riverview Early Childhood Center agreed with Bergman. The low wages and lack of benefits make hiring staff very challenging.

There are currently 12 staff members at Riverview. Ideally, Messerly said she’d like to see at least 6 full-time staff members with an extra person to fill in when other staff members are sick or absent.

“Right now, if we a staff member call in, we’re scrambling to see whether or not we can remain open that day,” she said.

Riverview Early Childhood Center currently has 113 children enrolled part-time and full-time.

“We could actually take about 30 more part-time students,” she said. “Honestly, if had more staff, we’d be able be able to take more full-time, too,” said Rosie Messerly, director of the center.

There is a waiting list for families wishing to enroll children at Riverview, Messerly said. Currently, that wait is 3 to 5 years.

Webster City Daycare also has had to implement a waiting list due to the lack of employees.

Officials with the daycare said there are currently 85 children enrolled, but the center is licensed for 177. Being able to achieve the required ratio of adults to children has proven to be difficult.

On Tuesday, a collaborative of Hamilton County Development, the county childcare committee and Building Families announced a new bonus program for childcare center. According to McKinley Bailey of Building Families, his board of directors approved the program which would pay sign on bonuses and retention bonuses which centers can pass onto employees who meet the criteria.

In order to fund the plan, the collaborative is looking to public and private funding sources to raise the required monies.

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,” Bailey 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, childcare committee member, said Story County is funding its childcare centers through city and county dollars, United Way and through the Iowa State University Student Government.

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

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