Hanan Sammour struggled so much this summer to find child care for one of her two children that she had to drop out of a required internship at a medical clinic. Sammour, a Bellevue single mother, was in the last step in a program at Highline College to become a medical assistant, when she could not find child care for her 8-year-old who has special needs. “I tried summer camps, I tried day cares, everywhere, no luck,” she said in July as she continued her search, hoping she could return to the program this fall.

Sammour is not alone. The Seattle area has a child care crisis, weighing on families who often feel trapped between work or study requirements, scarce child care options and excessive rates — especially if they don’t qualify for subsidies.

“If you talk to parents trying to find a slot, they [will] say it’s like searching for the Holy Grail,” said Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington, an advocacy group that assists families in finding child care.

Licensed child care facilities routinely have waitlists up to a year. This problem, developed long before the pandemic, has persisted because child care is a tough business, returning low pay for long hours and high demands. Home-based providers are especially prone to quit the business or retire, and the lost spots are hard to replace because of startup costs and licensing requirements.

No age group is adequately served; day care spots for infants to 11 months and school-age children ages 5 to 12 are particularly hard to find, said Puffert.

King County licensed child care facilities and other state-monitored care serve 69,696 children up to age 12, which is just 21% of the estimated need at 325,000 kids, according to estimates from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. These figures include some unlicensed family, friends and neighbors who are receiving a state subsidy to look after a child.

Out of options, some families are dropping their kids off wherever they can find a sitter, or with an unlicensed person who might be looking after several children from multiple families, said Cate Bridenstine, executive director for The Imagine Institute, which runs a statewide program that funds and trains licensed home-based providers in King County and statewide.

The impact of scarce child care on families extends to the workplace. A study commissioned by a state child care task force in 2019 concluded that employee turnover and missed work because of problems accessing child care costs Washington employers more than $2 billion annually, and the overall drain on the economy was $6.5 billion from child care-related issues such as reduced consumer spending.

Bridenstine said the child care crisis is real. “That so many families are dealing with that very real conundrum is a crisis,” she said. “We lose billions of dollars annually because people are unable to go to work. So, for employers, it is also a crisis. And as far as the impact on children in [the] society, it is a crisis when children don’t have nurturing and safe places to go every day.”

Double whammy

In addition to facing few options, many Seattle-area families struggle to pay for child care, which can cost more than $2,000 a month for infant care at a center.

Low-income families may qualify for subsidized child care, but the income categories leave many stuck in the middle — making too much to qualify and not enough to pay for fully priced child care.

For a family of four, the most a household can earn to remain eligible for a state subsidy is $67,368 annually. That family would pay a monthly copay of $165 for all the children.

“Families that earn [for example] $70,000 with an infant and a preschooler, you’re looking at up to a $40,000 child care bill,” Puffert said. “It is people who earn $65,000 to $110,000 that are in varying levels of difficulty around accessing child care.”

Having a child with special needs adds another layer of difficulty and cost. Sammour qualifies for state subsidies that would pay most of the cost of care for her two children. But part of the reason she could not find child care is that her older son requires special attention. She said she was trying to increase her subsidy so a center might receive a higher payment and take her son.

In Washington, parents with a special-needs child can qualify for extra assistance. The parent and provider must submit paperwork that is reviewed by a state panel. Sammour said her situation remained unresolved, and she was still searching for programs by the end of July.

Large child care centers in King County, such as Launch, sometimes offer tuition assistance. Launch helps families waiting for subsidies or who earn too much to qualify for subsidies but can’t afford the hefty price for day care.

One of the area’s largest preschool providers, Launch was founded by parents 46 years ago in Montlake Elementary. It has since grown to 13 centers in the Seattle area, including a recently opened location in Renton. Launch also runs an after-school program for school-age children up to grade 5, and a summer program.

Business struggles

Child care centers have faced broad economic challenges since the pandemic. Laura Nicholson, Launch’s chief program and strategy officer, said the costs have risen substantially with inflation in the last three years. Employee retention is another major problem. Licensed facilities must maintain strict employee-to-child ratios. For the programs that Launch runs, the ratio must be one worker for every 10 or 15 children depending on the age group.

“What really continues to be the pain point is that it is very difficult to find staff — to find teachers who are interested and passionate about working with children in child care settings,” Nicholson said, explaining that for every staff vacancy in a child care center, there could be 10 to 15 kids on the waitlist based on the age group.

Retaining workers is also difficult, Nicholson said. The pay is often lower than what workers make at area restaurants. Many child care workers are only guaranteed about 30 to 35 hours per week and get low to no benefits. Burnout is high. Costs and worker shortages have forced many child care providers out of business, leading to even tighter availability for families.

Desiree Hall, of the Stay & Play Childcare Learning Center, has been an exception in South Seattle’s Brighton neighborhood. Hall took over her mother’s home-based facility in 2018. During the pandemic she expanded the center’s capacity from 12 licensed spots to 30. She looks after infants and toddlers mostly from low- and moderate-income families.

But while she was adding spots, Hall says, some nearby home-based facilities closed. “They were probably older women who closed during COVID and never really opened back up,” she said. “So, the need for more child care centers and family homes is going to be even more greatly impacted here.”  Unlike other providers, Hall says she’s been able to hold on to staff, although she’s looking for two more workers now. “I know a lot of other people have a high turnover at their child care because it is hard to keep people,” Hall said.

Both sides now

Cailyn Meeks, a site manager with Launch, sees both sides of the problem as a child care employee and a single mother of two school-age children. Meeks has struggled to find child care near her apartment complex in Sultan in Snohomish County. State-monitored child care in Snohomish is even less available than in King, serving just 16,900 kids up to age 12, or just 13% of the estimated need of 130,600, according to state data.

“Out where I live the child care is far and few between,” Meeks said. “We have a Boys & Girls Club for before- and after-school kids and the rest are [home-based] care. This covers Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar. Meanwhile, we are adding hundreds of homes.”

Meeks needs child care badly. She commutes more than an hour into Seattle for the higher wages and is away for the entire day. Her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter share a room in a 700-square-foot apartment that she pays $1,400 for monthly. Eventually, as they grow, she’ll need to find a bigger place. But she doesn’t know how she is going to afford that on top of child care, food, gas and the other bills.

“I am a single, working mom; I work full time just to make ends meet.”