Amid ongoing labor shortages, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families in September announced a grant to fund child-care provider retention efforts across the state. Many who applied are now going public with their frustrations over what they see as lost money over a simple filing mistake involving an unchecked box citing worker verification. “There was confusion on the rules,” wrote Lindsay Owens in a recent email to The News Tribune. Owens is director at the Brotman Early Learning Center at Temple Beth El in Tacoma.
Owens was one of three separate child-care center officials who reached out to The News Tribune outlining problems they encountered with the application process. The state agency has defended the allocation process and insists that ample filing assistance was available to applicants.
According to its website, DCYF licenses approximately 6,000 early learning programs and school-age sites in the state. “The workforce retention grant has been widely disbursed, supporting more than 18,000 verified workers, with $700 per eligible worker,” Jason Wettstein, director of communications for DCYF, wrote Tuesday in the agency’s emailed statement in response to questions from The News Tribune. “Grantees originated from more than 3,600 child-care providers statewide,” he wrote.
GRANT’S RULES LEAD TO CONFUSION Awards of $700 per eligible worker were to be distributed from an approximately $13 million program that was open to applicants from late September through Oct. 20. The funding came from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act and was to provide “a one-time payment to on-site workers in eligible roles at DCYF-licensed or certified centers and family home child-care providers across the state.” According to the grant rules listed in a news release announcing the program, eligible applicants included licensed or certified child-care providers, who, among other requirements, had “staff records up to date in MERIT.”
MERIT is the state’s workforce registry and “official system of record for early learning professionals,” according to DCYF. Wettstein said via email, “Processes in place are meant to support responsible stewardship of funding. Up-to-date MERIT records are our means to ensure that providers confirm employees are currently working in child-care facilities and therefore eligible for this grant.” He added: “DCYF used MERIT data to determine worker eligibility. Self-entered applications could not be considered as we require employer verification that workers are currently employed as a financial control and a check on eligibility for the grant funding.”
The grant’s web page notes, “All eligible workers must be listed as ‘confirmed’ or ‘verified’ in MERIT. ‘Self-entered’ workers are not eligible.” That part became problematic for some applicants, who contend the wording was added after they had applied or that they never saw it on their application. For Owens, she said that meant of her 13 employees, only one received the $700, “because I didn’t know the boxes needed to be checked.”
Owens, in a phone interview Monday, described her experience with the MERIT process in more detail. “What I didn’t know, and a lot of people didn’t know, is on my MERIT system where I can see all of my employees, there is a little button on the very end that says, check to verify employment. And I have to just click a button that says, ‘confirmed.’ And for myself, as a director, I cannot confirm myself. So our licensor is supposed to confirm me.” “And they are also supposed to make sure all the rest of my employees are confirmed as being employed here,” she added.
Licensors work for DCYF to review child-care operations and MERIT entries as part of the state’s licensing process. After her grant application filing, Owens noted, “My licensor never checked it with me about it.” Owens partially blames short staffing among licensors for lapses in verification, which later became a disqualifying factor when it came to the grant process for those not verified.
“Everyone’s short-staffed,” she noted. “And we haven’t had our licensing visit yet, which also, I believe they would look at and make sure everyone is up to date on MERIT and confirmed.” Owens and others contend the grant’s verification details for the MERIT Workforce Registry changed at some point in the application process. “When you go through and fill out the application, the terms and conditions … the first one says I have reviewed and updated all staff records associated with my facility and MERIT,” Owens said. “It doesn’t say please make sure all your staff are confirmed.”
Kylee Sullivan, owner of ABCDino Academy in Richland, Washington, shared a copy of the academy’s appeal letter sent to the state Nov. 21, around the time grant recipients were notified of their awards. “We verified each employee’s record in MERIT, as required by the acknowledgment. When we initially drafted our grant application, the Eligibility section stated only, ‘Have staff records up to date in MERIT,’” the email says. The email continued: “Now, only after we see this listed as a possible reason for our staff members not showing as eligible do we see the added phrase, ‘All eligible workers must be listed as ‘confirmed’ or ‘verified’ in MERIT. ‘Self-entered’ workers are not eligible.’ Given that the application window was open when we printed the guidelines, we had no reason to believe the requirements would change or be narrowed, and therefore did not return to the web page to search for possible changes.”
Sullivan’s appeal email says only one on the academy staff was approved. Sullivan wrote: “Handing $700 to only one staff member when all 14 are eligible employees based on a technicality such as this will likely create the very opposite effect of retaining our workforce.”
COMPLAINTS FOCUS ON VERIFICATION PROCESS DCYF’s
Wettstein, in the agency’s statement, noted that assistance was available to help applicants.
“We publicized this grant, offered information and resources online and technical assistance in multiple languages by phone and email to help applicants benefit from these funds,” he wrote. Wettstein added, “The requirement to keep staff records up-to-date in the professional workforce registry, MERIT, is not new, nor is it specific to the Workforce Retention Grant. The process is long-standing, and keeping records up-to-date is a licensing requirement in law.” Owens shared screenshots with The News Tribune of others who have posted about the grant in the Washington State Childcare Center owners, directors and program supervisors group on Facebook.
“I read the rules the day I submitted my grant and it said nowhere that they needed to be ‘confirmed.’ So annoying,” wrote one. “I’m the only person out of 26 otherwise qualified staff who received the grant because of the technicality,” wrote another. “I never knew what the purpose of that little ‘confirmed’ box was. It seemed insignificant,” wrote yet another. Dana Christiansen is owner and director of Tree Hill Learning Center, with locations in Camas and Vancouver, Washington. In a phone interview Monday, she described the situation as a “debacle.” Christiansen said she’d been in the business for 22 years and a center owner in Washington for 15 years. “We had no idea we were supposed to click a couple boxes,” Christiansen said. “I have two sites, both have about 22 employees at each site. One site, I was approved for seven employees. And the other site, I was approved for five. “All the people at my site that got the retention grant, are either admin or owners, or long-term employees that at some point … in the last 10-15 years, someone went in and verified them, whether that was me inadvertently, or one of our licensors at the time, or one of my admin.” She added, “Now, at this point, all of my staff are verified, because once I figured out the problem, I went into every single profile, and clicked the button that says, ‘I verify this person.’ I went in individually and clicked all those for every single one of my staff. “But it’s too late now.” Christiansen said she and others were trying to get the word out in hopes of a review and possible re-evaluation, and encouraged letters to the governor and legislators. She speculated that it could potentially become a class-action lawsuit. “We all have our original applications for the grant that say nothing about having to go in and verify and certify each individual employee. It was added to the FAQ later,” she said. “I went into MERIT, I went to every single employee, made sure that their criminal background check was up to date, that all of their CPR, food handlers, all that stuff, everything was up to date. And that’s what we were told to do,” Christiansen said. When Owens wrote the state questioning the process, the Child Care Grants Office of DCYF responded by repeating the verification rules, in a copy of the email she forwarded to The News Tribune.
“The requirements for the grant are posted on our website and on the Frequently Asked Questions page. Thank you and have a lovely day,” the email said. Owens said judging by the Facebook traffic she’d seen about the issue, it appeared that many sites across the state likely saw employees miss out on the money. “My employees work paycheck to paycheck. And so to have this huge chunk of money they’re not going to get is a big, big deal,” Owens said.
from Debbie Cockrell with The News Tribune
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