image Courtney Talak, The Daily News

Child care providers in Southwest Washington are worried the cost for daycare will skyrocket under new state licensing standards focused on increasing staff qualifications. Under the new requirements, employees at state-licensed child care centers will need to get two new certifications (the equivalent to 20 credits of college classes). That’s in addition to a 30-hour training program to be completed in the first three months of employment and 10 more hours of professional development per year already mandated by the state.

“I understand wanting to up the standards and wanting to get a higher level of professionalism in the field in general, and I think that’s noble,” said James Murphy, director of the early learning center at Three River Christian School.  “There are good reasons behind this, but they have to keep in mind that it’s going to drive costs up.”

The new requirements put a greater strain on a child care system already at its breaking point, he said.  Right now the average child care worker in Southwest Washington makes about four cents more than minimum wage, said Erin Hart, TRCS superintendent. That’s less than a dog groomer, she said.  If the state mandates employees get higher qualifications, the job will “command more than minimum wage,” Murphy said.

Child care centers pay wages with money predominately earned from the tuition or rates parents pay to enroll their children in the program. That means the higher the wages, the higher the cost of child care.  Many centers in this region already raised their rates to cover minimum wage increases that set in this January, said Danielle Burns, director of Lil’ Red Barn Academy in Longview. The new licensing requirements might force them to raise rates again, she said.

For Polly’s Tender Loving Daycare, rate raises will be a definite under the new requirements, said owner Jennifer Wild.  But the new requirements will do more than just increase the cost of day care, Wild said. They will also make it harder for centers to find employees. For example, her afternoon aides are part-time help that work at the center to support themselves through college, Wild said. Not all of these aides are earning their degrees in early learning or childhood education, so it’s a lot to ask of them to complete a higher degree of training, she said.

It’s a similar situation at TRCS, Murphy said. His part-time staff are typically high school students or retirees, so they are unlikely to pursue additional daycare training.

“When you put these kinds of regulations in place, it could be a deterrent to even come into the field,” Murphy said. “We hire a lot out of (employees) that are in college on a different career path, but they come to work for us and fill a really important role. With the state requirements the way they are, it could be a barrier for them.”

The end result? A “major shortage of workers and a major shortage of child care centers,” Wild said.

Education organizations in Southwest Washington say a “child care crisis” has been brewing over the last decade. The Educational Services District 112 reported in April 2018 that about 150 child care programs in this region closed between 2002 and 2018, while rates consistently increased. The average monthly cost of child care in Cowlitz County in 2017 was $650, according to Child Care Aware, a statewide resource and referral program for child care.

“Licensed child care is expensive, and it is going to become a lot more expensive. … Unfortunately, it appears that child care is going to be a luxury for the very wealthy,” Murphy said in a Jan. 10 letter to the state Department of Children Youth and Families, which oversees licensing requirements. “For families who can’t afford to pay the tuition, they will have to seek other options including unlicensed and/or underground operations.”

TRCS is advocating that legislators re-evaluate the licensing requirements before they are implemented in August. One proposed bill would buy centers five more years before they have to fully comply with the new requirements. Another would postpone the regulation roll out until there’s a financial system to help cover the added costs of staff training.  In the meantime, TRCS and other child care centers like it are preparing for the financial blow they’re expecting as result of the new licensing requirements.

“We don’t ever want to stop doing what we are called to do,” Hart said. “But if we have to scale back dramatically in order to survive, that’s what we will do.”

news article by Mallory Gruben for The Daily News