The Costs of Care: Rates for child care going up, squeezing parents and providers

  • The Anton family, from left, Maddie, 3, Riley eight months, Arianna, and Doug, sit down to dinner together at home in West Hartford, Vt., Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Arianna, a critical-care nurse educator at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and nursing teacher at Colby Sawyer, and Doug, a teacher at Hartford High School, said they are planning to dig into their emergency and retirement funds to cover an expected price increase for their girls' day care. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Doug Anton, of West Hartford, picks up his daughter Maddie, 3, from the Green Mountain Children's Center in White River Junction, Vt., after a day of teaching at Hartford High School Friday, Jan. 11, 2020. Anton expects the cost of day care at GMCC to increase by 28-30% beginning in February. The nonprofit daycare has to raise rates in order to cover expenses. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Maddie Anton, 3, asks her dad, Doug Anton, left, to let her count using the family's Advent calendar before he offers a correction at their West Hartford, Vt., home Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Maddie and Anton's eight-month-old Riley, left, attend Green Mountain Children's Center in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lisa Lawrence reads to Evie Bostock, 5, at the Child Care Center in Norwich on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Norwich, Vt. A former pre-school teacher, Lawrence works in the office at the center but sometimes helps to cover classrooms. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Evie Bostock, 5, left, Charlie Morrison, 4, and Judah Jenkins, 3, play in the activity room at the Child Care Center in Norwich on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Norwich, Vt.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jacob Allen, 3, washes paint off his hands at the Child Care Center in Norwich on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Norwich, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2020 8:58:10 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 8:57:12 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Families of children who attend the Green Mountain Children’s Center in White River Junction and Claremont received a note earlier this month notifying them that the cost would go up between 28% to 30% beginning in February.

The nonprofit is just one of many child care centers in the Twin States dealing with pressures around the tight labor market and training requirements for workers caring for young children, with some saying the industry is at a “crisis point.”

The Jan. 3 notification, from Green Mountain Executive Director Sharon Miller-Dombroski and Board Chairwoman Natalie Chaput, said the nonprofit had to raise rates in order to cover expenses.

“Our tuition rates have lagged behind our counterparts in early education for many years,” they wrote of the increase, which could be as much $77 per week for infants. “While it was a benefit to GMCC families, it has become a detriment to the overall financial health of the organization.”

Green Mountain, which cares for about 80 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 years in White River Junction along with another 60 kids in Claremont, closed its Lebanon location on Heater Road in 2016, citing the challenges of rising costs. Green Mountain also provided after-school care at Dothan Brook School in Wilder and Ottauquechee School in Quechee until last fall, after the Hartford School District went out to bid for the service and selected a different provider.

“Changes in program offerings and revenue impact the bottom line for any business,” Miller-Dombroski said via email.

The rate increase brings the full-time rate for children — depending on their age — to between $253 and $270 per week in Claremont and between $275 and $350 per week in White River Junction. The cost to care for infants is highest because centers are required to have lower teacher-to-child ratios for the younger children.

Brandee Platt, whose 2-year-old daughter Kennedy attends Green Mountain in White River Junction, said she looked at other options after getting the notice that rates would be increasing, but ended up deciding to keep Kennedy there.

There’s “nothing that compares to the care that she has there,” Platt said.

Similarly, Doug Anton, whose 3½-year-old and 8-month-old daughters also attend the White River Junction center, said they will continue to go there after the rates increase. Though his family will need to dig into their emergency and retirement funds to cover the additional $7,500 annually, the cost is still competitive with other day care providers in the Upper Valley.

“We’re very lucky that we have that level of savings that we’ve spent time building up,” he said.

The Antons are in good company in having to dig deep into their pockets to cover child care costs in the Upper Valley. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests such families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care. But in the Upper Valley, the average cost of care for just one infant (about $10,498 annually) is equivalent to about 16% of the median income of families in the region, according to a 2018 report from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Both states offer subsidies for lower-income families, but families who earn above those thresholds — $4,721 per month for a family of four in New Hampshire and $6,438 per month for a family of four in Vermont — don’t qualify for that support.

Paying for care is only part of the challenge for families; the Carsey report also found that the Upper Valley was about 2,000 licensed slots short of those needed to care for the region’s young children.

Green Mountain is not alone among Twin State child care providers in struggling to manage the costs of running a child care center, which include regular costs of rent and utilities, as well as the increasing costs of wages for staff who are required to have higher levels of training than they once did in a competitive labor market.

Just last week, the weekly newspaper Seven Days reported that three Loveworks child care centers in the Vermont communities of Milton, Montpelier and South Burlington are set to close on March 13 due to budget issues and difficulty finding teachers who meet the state’s education requirements. The closings leave 90 infants, toddlers and preschoolers in need of alternative care, Seven Days reported.

Two other Loveworks centers on Shelburne Road in South Burlington and Essex will stay open, but will raise rates by 12% at the end of February, Seven Days said.

The tight labor market can mean that child care providers are unable to serve even up to the number they are licensed to care for. Such is the case for the nonprofit Child Care Center in Norwich, which currently has about six fewer children than it is licensed to care for, said its director Allison Colburn.

“Our big challenge right now is workforce,” Colburn said. “There is nobody to hire. All the centers are talking about what can we do to incentivize people to come work for us and to stay with us once they’re here.”

Though the challenges of balancing the quality and cost of care aren’t new, Colburn said they are at the worst she’s seen in her 37 years at the Child Care Center.

“You can go work at Shaw’s and have a whole lot less stress,” Colburn said. “When you leave your shift you can walk away. When you’re working with young children you can’t do that.”

While some families can absorb increases in rates, Colburn said others get creative with scheduling to have a grandparent or other relative take the kids one day a week or work a weekend day in order to have a weekday at home with the kids, she said.

“Our whole industry is kind of in a crisis point right now,” she said.

Child care workers in Vermont make a median wage of $13.27 per hour and a mean annual wage of $29,430, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In New Hampshire, they make even less: a median wage of $11.11 per hour and an annual mean wage of $23,940.

The “economics do not work currently,” Let’s Grow Kids CEO Aly Richards said in a phone interview from home while she tended to her sick 1-year-old twins on Jan. 9.

While parents can’t afford to pay more, child care workers can’t afford to make any less, Richards said. She said the solution is greater public investment in child care to improve wages for workers and the quality of the care.

Richards, whose Montpelier-based organization aims to make high-quality, affordable child care available across Vermont by 2025, described the rate hike at Green Mountain as the “canary in the coalmine” for the troubled industry.

Child care providers also are working creatively to cut costs. Val Raney, who directs the for-profit 4 Corners Children’s Center in Hartland, said she has asked some of her workers to leave early when there are more staff than needed to maintain the required teacher/child ratios. Even though it means some of them might not get in their 40 hours a week, a few have agreed to do so.

“It’s pinching pennies, but it helps,” Raney said. “We need state funding or federal funding to survive.”

The for-profit FitKids Childcare at the River Valley Club in Lebanon is taking an unconventional approach to recruitment and working with Ascentria Care Alliance, a nonprofit that resettles refugees in Concord, in hopes of bringing new Americans to the Upper Valley to work.

“This is groundbreaking for us and maybe for the whole Upper Valley,” said Lisa Bozogan, FitKids director.

Though there are still several steps to work through before refugees come to work at FitKids, such as addressing language barriers, housing and transportation, Bozogan said she’s confident they can overcome them and hopes that doing so will allow the center to enroll more children. Due to staffing challenges, FitKids currently cares for just 150 of the 188 children it is licensed to care for, she said. And the center has about 140 children on its waiting list.

In the interim, Bozogan said she pays high school students $11 an hour — which is just above the new Vermont minimum wage — to help out in the afternoons after they get out of school. Though they cannot be left alone with the children, due to licensing requirements, they help the center’s other teachers.

“It is a full-time job trying to recruit employees, honestly,” Bozogan said.

As a result of the increase at Green Mountain, at least one family has given its notice, Miller-Dombroski said. Others would be making “difficult decisions,” she said.

“We expected that,” she said in a phone interview.

The organization is doing what it can to raise money for scholarships, she said.

“We hope we can make it work,” she said.

Anton also said he’s hopeful that the rate increase will be sufficient to balance the organization’s books so it can stay open and continue providing the care his family and others rely on.

“It is so tough to find a spot,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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