Child care crisis: Routt County centers struggle to hire staff, parents scramble to find care

Routt County commissioners slated to hold child care summit at 11 a.m. Monday

Children eat a snack at Heritage Park Preschool on Friday. The preschool has been down a certified staff member since April, which caused it to shut down one of its classrooms. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In February, Kasey O’Halloran learned the preschool teacher at Little Lambs Daycare in Phippsburg would be leaving in April. She immediately started looking for a replacement but was unable to fill the position before the teacher left.

O’Halloran founded Little Lambs in 2019 because she couldn’t find child care for her own child in the “child care desert” that is South Routt County. As the calendar flips to August, the preschool teacher position is still open.

Two positions for noncredentialed staff have been open for months, as well with some candidates turning down a job offer and no one even applying for the other.

Then last Monday, O’Halloran learned she would be losing two more staff — the director and assistant director of Little Lambs. Without them, O’Halloran said she will lose her license with the state and will have to close after Aug. 19.

“Without them and their credentials, my license will no longer be active, so I can no longer operate as a child care facility,” O’Halloran said.

Staff told her they were leaving because the job was too stressful. She admits it is a stressful job, but having to close puts a lot of stress on families who will lose their child care just as summer is ending.

“Don’t you think it is pretty stressful for the 40 families that just lost care? That’s pretty stressful,” O’Halloran said. “There’s 40 employers who now have staff members who potentially can’t come in because they don’t have child care, so the already exhausted labor market of Routt County is going to be even worse.”

The Little Lambs closure is not an isolated issue. Heritage Park Preschool has been down a credentialed staff member since April and has had to keep one of its rooms closed, leaving seven local families without care.

Melinda Mass, executive director of Heritage Park, said they haven’t had many qualified applicants, and two people who were offered the job declined it because they are unable to find housing.

“I get phone calls every day and emails from people looking for care, and we’re not taking anybody else on our waitlist because our waitlist is so long,” Mass said.

With 22 on the list, Mass said she can’t say it is likely any of them will actually get a spot at the preschool in the fall.

Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, said there are at least 15 critical positions currently open in child care facilities across the county.

“If I were younger and just moving to this community, just newly married or whatever, I would really second guess having children right now,” Pleshe said. “It is not that it is not worth it to have children, but it is so expensive to have them.”

A classroom sits empty at Heritage Park Preschool because the center lacks enough certified staff to keep the room open. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

‘A shortage for many years’

Finding adequate child care in Routt County was difficult before the pandemic hit. Data from 2019 shows there is enough child care locally to serve about 60% of the children 5 and younger who need care.

For infants and toddlers, the situation is worse, with the available care meeting just 17% of the need for those 3 and younger.

Routt County has averaged around 200 births per year over the past five years but has just 126 spots in care centers for those younger than 2, according to the Child Care Network, which refers local families to care options.

While there are efforts underway to try to boost the child care capacity locally — Routt County and Steamboat Springs are exploring building a facility themselves — the focus has shifted to simply keeping current child care options open.

“We’ve had a pretty significant shortage of child care for many years. … That existed before the pandemic, and that exists now,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton. “I think the short version is we need child care, and we can’t afford to lose any we already have.”

What some considered a crisis before, now firmly meets that definition, as parents and providers say the state of child care access in the county is “dire.” If nothing is done, some fear the trickle-down effects will continue to handicap the local economy, slow recovery from the pandemic and cause parents to not only leave the workforce but the Yampa Valley all together.

The Routt County Board of Commissioners will hold a work session at 11 a.m. Monday to discuss the state of child care and what immediate action can be taken to ease the pain being felt across the community.

But as staff is short across the county, competition for workers has accelerated. With slim margins, child care centers can’t afford to pay employees much more than they make now. Parents can’t afford to pay any more for care, either.

“It is extremely expensive. For all three kids to be in prekindergarten and day care is about $2,700 a month,” said Hayden mother Bethany Karulak-Baker, adding that this care is just for four days per week. “When you get new families coming to town, moms trying to work, dads trying to work — they have no options.”

Melinda Mass, executive director of Heritage Park Preschool, sits with children as they eat a snack on Friday. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

A competition for staff

Businesses are facing staffing woes across the county. Fast food restaurants are offering a starting wage of $15 an hour or more. Some places are trying to lure staff with signing bonuses and wages nearing $30 per hour.

Melton said a recent informal wage study among child care centers found staff make between $14 and $23 per hour, with many of these positions requiring higher levels of education, state certification and previous experience.

“It doesn’t really matter who hands you your coffee at Starbucks, but it does matter who’s watching your children,” Pleshe said. “If someone who is working at Starbucks is making more than who’s watching your children, that is fundamentally flawed.”

The obvious answer among many providers is to try to pay staff more, but with slim margins, raising rates on parents isn’t a realistic solution.

“It’s a Catch-22. We have to pay them more, but where does that money come from?” Pleshe said. “Even if we can pay them more, how do they get housing?”

Meagan Wykuis has her 15-month old son at Little Lambs full-time right now but will now need another option this fall while she is working as a school counselor for the Steamboat Springs School District. Her husband works full-time from home, but Wykuis said he cannot do his job and look after their son at the same time.

“I was panicking after I found out Little Lambs might be closing,” Wykuis said. “I was turned away from a few (full-time care options) that said they couldn’t even put me on a waitlist because that is how dire the situation is.”

After being turned away at all the full-time providers, Wykuis found two part-time options to meet her child care needs. An unlicensed, in-home care person will provide care for three days, and then she is planning to share a nanny with another family displaced by the Little Lambs closing.

“When you start to factor in what my salary is versus what care is costing us … maybe I should not go back to work,” Wykuis said.

Wykuis said she’ll be taking home about $700 per month total when she subtracts the cost of child care from her pay.

“If we’re starting to see that moms can’t go back to work or dads can’t go back to work because they have to stay home and care for their child, that is where I think we’re going to see a big impact with our economy,” Wykuis said.

Melinda Mass, executive director at Heritage Park Preschool, sits with children as they eat a snack Friday. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Effect on the local economy

Child care is a service that has an enabling effect on the workforce, said John Bristol, economic development director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber.

When there is adequate spots in child care facilities, parents are enabled to participate in the economy. It has the opposite effect when there isn’t child care, with some parents opting to leave the workforce.

“That enabling effect is really important for the economy, as that helps businesses retain and attract their workforce, and that supports the economy in the long run,” Bristol said.

Bristol said businesses have been losing out on hires because of a lack of child care for years, with the issue having almost as significant effect locally as the lack of affordable housing.

“Child care, housing costs and the cost of health insurance — those are key issues for business owners, and they see that, and it makes it really hard for them to attract and retain employees,” Bristol said.

When there are prolonged periods where child care isn’t accessible, Bristol said this will lead to more people falling out of the workforce. When they leave, it is harder for workers to invest in themselves, and people often fall behind on current trends and skills in their industry, making it harder for them to ever reenter the workforce.

This burden typically falls more on women, Bristol said, with them exiting the workforce because of lack of child care more frequently than men.

“Over the long run, that can reduce people’s ability to save for retirement and have some savings,” Bristol said. “That depresses all of these long-term activities that the individual families need to be doing.”

Child care centers are an economy of scale, creating efficiency by caring for multiple children at the same time. When more parents are forced to leave the workforce to care for children, the overall economy gets less efficient, Bristol said.

Bristol said there are currently more jobs available in Routt County than people who are unemployed. There are a handful of issues that cause people to be less willing to take these open jobs. Maybe the most talked about potential cause is additional pandemic unemployment assistance, but Bristol said lack of child care access is another reason. The lack of potential employees is driving up wages in many industries, and the slim margins in child care make it difficult for them to compete, Bristol said.

“What we are seeing now is a historic shift in the marketplace towards the employee. The employee is in the driver’s seat now more than ever,” Bristol said. “This is the same for child care centers.”

This leads to the question of whether, like a public school education, access to child care should be viewed as a social good that communities should be funding, Bristol said.

“It’s where a lot of the conversation goes. What level of public investment do we do?” Bristol said. “It certainly has an impact on the economy because it’s keeping workers out of the workforce.”

Parents searching for options

Kathleen Bellamy said she was able to make it through the first year of motherhood with the help of family. In the second year, when she needed to find child care, all she could find was an unlicensed in-home provider.

Her daughter was there for 14 months, the longest stay she has had at any single care option. Bellamy’s daughter then switched to another unlicensed in-home care option for six months before finding a spot with a licensed care provider until her daughter was almost 3 years old.

But when the pandemic hit, that option ended up closing, and Bellamy was out of child care again, just as she was welcoming a second child to the family. She found a spot at Discovery Learning Center for her daughter to go to preschool, but they couldn’t take her son.

After calling around, the only option with space to take her son at 5-months-old was Little Lambs, and Bellamy ended up moving both children there, hoping they would be able to stay until starting kindergarten.

Maren Franciosi got her 13-month-old child on a waiting list for a spot at Little Lambs when she was three months pregnant. Franciosi said Little Lambs has been a gem in South Routt and filled a huge need for the community, especially as younger families like hers have moved there to escape higher costs of living in Steamboat.

The Little Lambs closure is expected to leave about 40 families scrambling to find child care.

Bellamy was lucky to find a spot with a licensed in-home provider for her daughter, but she is still without care for her infant son.

“I’ve contacted everybody licensed and unlicensed, talked to a couple of nannies,” Bellamy said. “I know everyone is in the same position, doing the same thing as me.”

Franciosi said she and her husband and a handful of other families are discussing other options like sharing a nanny.

“The biggest thing I feel is concern for my child who loves school and his friends and his teachers,” Franciosi said. “He is doing so well, so I hate taking him out of that.”

Part of the allure of the nanny share option is the potential to keep some of the children together for care and maintain the daily interaction with peers. The drawback is the cost, which is about $15 per hour.

Wykuis said she was paying about $65 per day for care at Little Lambs, or about $325 per week. Paying a nanny eight hours per day, five days per weeks would cost about $600 per week.

“You are almost doubling the cost of care,” Wyhuis said.

A resource that’s empty

When looking for care, parents often end up calling Sharon Butler, program manager and parent educator at the Child Care Network. Butler said she makes about 200 referrals to local child care centers each year. So far this year, she has referred about 100 families to child care for about 110 children.

Typically when a parent reaches out, Butler serves as a resource, talking to them about where they live and work, what level of care they need and then gives them a list of licensed providers.

“The problem now is all the programs are full,” Butler said.

Without an obvious place to send them, Butler said she give parents the list of licensed providers and advises them about how often they should call back to see if there is an opening, as waiting lists have become too cumbersome for many providers to maintain.

The list includes licensed home providers, as well as child care centers. Only one of these in-home providers has closed this year, Butler said, but over the past decade, the number of these options has dropped “significantly.”

Losing these providers takes a larger toll on the capacity of care for infants and toddlers because many of them accept these younger children, where many centers do not.

“We don’t have enough capacity for infants and toddlers,” Butler said. “That has changed over the years. More mommies are going back to work sooner, and just to live in Routt County, you have to have two incomes.”

The capacity of care, even though it is already inadequate, can be deceiving as well, Butler said, because some providers may be licensed to care for infants and toddlers but make a business decision not to.

Infants and toddlers require higher ratios of teachers to children, which makes delivering the care more expensive. There are also requirements to have different rooms and playground equipment for younger children, meaning the upfront costs of serving infants, toddlers and older children in one facility are steep.

Because of this, Butler said many local providers don’t offer care for those younger children, leading to the stark disparity in capacity of care. Staff shortages have extended the problem to all levels of care.

When asked if there was an available spot in any level of care in any part of the county that she could refer parents to if they called her, Butler simply said, “Not that I know of.”

Building a new center

Routt County has set aside land on the site of the new Health and Human Services Building to potentially build a center that would boost local child care capacity.

The city of Steamboat Springs and the county received a matching grant to explore the feasibility of a new facility and study what it would cost to maintain. Pleshe said many of the local care options are nonprofits and require grants to subsidize their operations.

“It’s not a money-making operation by any way, shape or form. The actual cost compared to what parents pay for tuition — it doesn’t even (cover it),” Pleshe said. “If the county donates this land and builds the building, it is still going to have to sustain itself over time.”

While there may be an appetite among current county commissioners to provide funding to open a facility, Pleshe said there is no guarantee future commissioners will feel the same way.

Irene Avitia, early childhood education specialist at Integrated Community, said building a facility is about more than just increasing child care capacity; it’s also about maintaining the workforce.

“If our parents don’t have child care to keep their children safe, then eventually, they’re either going to quit their job or move out of our community to where they can find child care,” Avitia said.

Pleshe said she has spoken to several employers who have had candidates accept jobs and find housing only to turn down the offer later because of a lack of available child care.

Pleshe said she knows Yampa Valley Electric Association has gone through this and even entertained the idea of allowing a center to be built on land it owns to help add to the supply for its own employees.

But there are many roadblocks to building a child care center. In this case, the land in question is in a flight path, which makes the location ineligible for a center.

“It seems like every time you take a step forward, there are two steps back,” Pleshe said.

The same could be true for the prospective new child care center in downtown Steamboat. Space on the site is limited, and having enough space for the required playgrounds for various ages is not a sure thing. Ensuring there is dedicated funding for the center to operate into the future is difficult as well.

Those are questions the feasibility study the county and city of Steamboat are partnering to fund should answer. A consultant to conduct the study is expected to be selected in the next few weeks.

But even if the study shows a center is feasible for the county and city to run, staffing is still a major issue.

“Let’s say we can build the building,” Melton said. “It doesn’t really help us to have an empty child care center or a child care center where we are poaching staff from other centers in the area.”

‘Mass exodus of parents’

On Thursday, Routt County commissioners announced they will hold a child care-focused discussion about how to address the crisis that has grown more dire in recent weeks.

The meeting is classified as a work session, which means commissioners will not make any decisions. Instead, Melton said she hopes they can raise awareness about the issue.

“I think if you are not a parent that is directly struggling with it, you might not recognize how significant of a crisis this really has become,” Melton said. “It is not an exaggeration to call this a crisis or an emergency.”

Melton said she wants to explore short-term solutions with the hope that commissioners can come to enough of a consensus they can start identifying potential funding options.

Pleshe said she plans to propose some ideas for boosting teacher pay and offering funding to help local centers better advertise their open positions.

Without quick action, Melton fears the crisis could have even more effects on the local workforce than what is already being seen. While full economic collapse may be a little dramatic, Melton said it is hard to imagine the local economy could remain strong if nothing is done.

“I do think that a mass exodus of parents from our workforce, from our labor pool, could happen, even more than it already is,” Melton said. “That is not good for any of us. We need people to do the jobs that keep our economy running.”

There could be more long-term effects, too. The Steamboat Springs School District hopes to have enough students this fall to maintain five-year averages for student count that determine per-pupil funding. If families are forced to leave the area due to lack of child care, it could eventually translate to less money in the district’s coffers.

“I don’t think it is fatalistic to say that,” Melton said. “It’s all connected, and I think early childhood is just such an important link in that chain.”

Melton said many early childhood education teachers leave the profession for a job in a public school, often because the pay and benefits are so much better. Without more parity in pay and benefits between these positions, Melton said centers will continue to struggle to be competitive.

When looking at other resort communities, many have identified a dedicated funding source for early childhood education. Pleshe said Breckenridge and Summit County both have dedicated tax revenue that supports local child care. Eagle and Pitkin counties also dedicate tax revenue for child care.

“There’s mill levies. There is a sin-tax that we can do on marijuana or tobacco,” Pleshe said. “There’s multiple ways to look at it. It just depends what is going to work best for our community.”

Pleshe said there has been talk for years about going to the voters to ask them to support a tax for child care, and maybe now is the time. At the very least, she wants to increase awareness about the issue, which she hopes could translate to community support for a solution.

“Somebody had $23 million to throw at the housing authority,” Pleshe said somewhat jokingly, referencing the pending purchase of the Steamboat 700 land west of town that has breathed hope into a solution to the local housing crisis. “Who knows? Maybe somebody else has another couple of million dollars they want to throw at this problem.”

If you go

What: Routt County commissioners discuss child care crisis

When: 11 a.m. Monday

Where: In-person at Board of Commissioner’s Hearing Room in the Historic County Courthouse or virtual

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