Staffing challenges exacerbate child care crisis in Eagle County
Local entities rally around child care providers as they battle rising costs, staffing challenges and increasing community need
Joanna Beall’s 3-year old daughter Maddie has attended the Vail Child Care Center since she was 12 weeks old. Her older child also attended the facility. And for many years, the child care center has worked perfectly. But starting in August, due to staffing challenges, Vail Child Care will be unable to open on Fridays.
As the only licensed infant child care facility in Vail, this will pose a huge problem for many local families.
The decision to close one day a week is going to be hard for the Bealls to handle. Beall often works from home, but it’s difficult, at best, to get any work done with a 3-year-old in the house.
“For me, I either have to figure out how to get someone in my house or I have to find another place to work,” Beall said.
Beall, who works in human resources, recognizes that the staffing crunch at Vail Child Care is just part of a larger problem affecting the entire valley.
“Housing, staffing and child care are all linked,” she said.
The need for quality child care, particularly for infants and toddlers, in any community is undeniable. While parents in the county are struggling to find available and affordable care, many child care providers are working hard to stay in business. And as the current county-wide workforce challenges seep into child care, it’s adding challenges to an already challenging industry.
Not enough qualified teachers
Eagle Valley Child Care Association, which runs the Vail Child Care Center as well as its sister facility Miller Ranch Child Care in Edwards, didn’t want to make the decision to cut a day of care. However, with no qualified teachers applying for positions and its entire staff already working 40-hour weeks, management was left with no other options.
“It’s all just a circle. If we can’t hire, we can’t put children in the building, which means we’re low in funding because we can’t put children in the building because we can’t staff,” said Jordan Womochil, the director of Vail Child Care. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the valley really applying to be teachers right now.”
Even if other local child care providers haven’t made operational changes, it’s certainly an option that they’re weighing.
Jess Deerr, the director of Mountain Tots Preschool in Eagle, has been in charge of hiring at the child care center for a few years and noted that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find qualified employees.
“We’re looking for a couple of teachers and I put an ad out a month ago, and I have had nobody respond,” Deerr said.
Looking forward to August and September, Deerr has been contemplating whether the center will need to make any changes.
“That’s a real possibility if we can’t find enough staff; it would be a real possibility. We would have to have shorter hours, stop on certain days, something like that,” she said. “Hopefully, we don’t get there.”
For Shelley Smith, who serves as the director of Early Childhood Programs at Eagle County Schools, workforce retention is her biggest concern for all nine of the district’s early-childhood programs. Currently, three weeks before school starts, the district has 15 staff vacancies in its early-childhood programs.
“This might be the first fall that we may have to reduce our services; we’ve always been extending them by offering extended day or extended year, because we know families needed care beyond 3 p.m. and we know that they needed care in the summer, but we’re not sure that we’re going to have staff in the fall to fully continue to do all those extended programs,” Smith said. The extended services often require more staff due to the length of shifts.
Smith added that no decisions have been made yet to that effect, but that she is working with district leadership to “avoid that because we know families need it.”
According to Smith, the county’s 46 early-childhood programs (including both public and private providers) are licensed to serve 1,459 children, however, right now there are 369 spaces available that can’t be filled because of staffing challenges.
“We’ve always had more people on our waitlist than we can serve,” Smith said.
While many businesses in the county are facing similar staffing and workforce issues, this challenge is multiplied for child care providers as they need staff and teachers with certain qualifications.
“We can’t just hire anybody, they have to have some training and some classes, so that poses a challenge,” Smith said.
Merced Rutty, owner of Rumpelstiltskin Preschool in Avon, said staffing is all about finding the “right person.” The right person being someone who is nurturing and knows what it takes to care for kids but also someone that has the right qualifications.
“Qualifications are a hard one for all of us,” Rutty said.
“Our cost of living is so high, so we have to pay more and qualifications for teachers now are very high, so if you’re highly qualified, you want to make a salary that goes with those qualifications,” Deerr said. “It is getting more and more difficult to find people to come work in the field.”
One way the county is seeking to tackle this, Smith said, is through a pilot program with Colorado Mountain College, which has an early-childhood education program. Eagle County, as well as neighboring Pitkin County, is partnering with the college to offer workplace learning where teachers could join classes throughout the day to earn their credentials.
“We’re trying to be really creative with developing workforce,” Smith said.
Another way the county has incentivized teachers to get their qualifications, and stay in their positions, is through a supplemental salary program. Under this, early-childhood teachers get paid a twice-annual stipend based on their time in the position and their credentials with the state early-care system.
“They’re not paid enough, so we have to supplement their salary,” Smith said.
For the staff and teachers that the centers do have, the challenges and stress of the job is abundant.
“They’re overworked,” Womochil said. “It’s hard when they can’t get out of the classroom to do their curriculum. It’s hard when they’re just in the classroom to make ratios work. We can’t have training days or support them to do curriculum work when we don’t have enough staff.”
While Deerr said calmer isn’t quite the right word, there is certainly more stress when the center is under-staffed. “We have a higher stress level and more on our plate,” she said.
Battling rising costs
Behind the curtain, one of the reasons that finding qualified staff is difficult is that it costs more.
And already, according to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments’ 2021 Regional Assessment of the Child Care Industry report, an estimated 60% to 80% of early-childhood education program income goes toward staff salaries and benefits.
“Maintaining required teacher-child ratios and providing safe and high-quality care often result in providers seeking grants and other sources to address funding gaps,” reads the report. “Despite these efforts, resources often fall short, resulting in low wages and challenges in meeting basic operating costs for providers. Indeed, many professionals in the early childhood workforce earn less than a living wage and rely on public support programs.”
And as providers attempt to provide adequate benefits and livable wages — something that’s growing increasingly hard to do as cost of living continues to rise — there’s been a bit of a push and pull between the county’s providers.
“We do have staff leave private providers to come work for us because (private providers) don’t have the resources to provide some of the supports that we do,” Smith said, adding that this includes benefits as well as training and planning time.
However, she noted that right now, staff is also leaving the district for those providers.
“Right now, many private providers are actually offering significantly more than we do and we’ve actually lost about three teachers in the last three months, and I think they’re having to pay much more than they have in the past to be able to operate their programs,” Smith said. “I just worry about the long-term effects of that on the community, because that’s a good way to get people hired, but I don’t know how you maintain that.”
According to Smith, within the district’s early-childhood program, certified teachers are paid “kind of a livable wage.” For those non-certified or teaching assistants, which she said account for nearly 70% of its teachers, what they’re receiving is “not a livable wage in the valley.”
Striking the balance between keeping their services affordable, paying teachers enough and keeping their businesses open is something all local providers are struggling to do. Especially following the past year, when pandemic trends have led to an increase in supply costs as well as local rents.
“We apply to as many grants as possible to subsidize our tuition, but tuition is our No. 1 revenue in our business,” Deerr said. “We were recently faced with a rent increase in our building here, so we want to keep tuition affordable but we also have to, in order to get some teachers, we’re going to have to look at paying more, pay wages and again that does trickle back to what we have to charge for daily care.”
Rutty noted a similar dilemma. “We haven’t raised our prices in the last five years, but our rent went up and with COVID everything skyrocketed,” she said. “I know it’s hard on families and I don’t want to do that, but for me to stay afloat and to be able still to provide to my staff, full time wage, I would have to raise prices.”
And already, affordability of child care is a problem. According to the NWCCOG’s report, the average cost for annual child care tuition for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old, is $27,055 — which accounts for 33% of the statewide median income.
“This is not viable for average income workers, limiting ability to attract talent to the field,” the report said.
Federal and local funding allows the local school district’s early childhood programs to offer more comprehensive services including home visits, mental health, physical health and family supports, that not all providers have the resources to provide.
“We’re really lucky, we have an HR department, we have lots of people that give us support, but if I’m an independent person that’s trying to meet all those requirements, it’s really challenging,” Smith said.
As a public program, the other thing it allows is subsidizing the cost of care for those who need it most. Because the district is the county’s Head Start grantee, serves the Colorado Preschool Program and receives mill levy funds, it receives more funds to serve the under-resourced populations. Currently, in its early-education classrooms, 46% of students are under-resourced (or considered at-risk), 25% are tuition-paying families and 30% receive special education services for diagnosed delays.
“If you look at the percentage of our students, 75% would be identified as at-risk for school success, whether it’s because they have a learning diagnosis delay or socioeconomic or other risk factors, Smith said. “That’s the population that needs us the most.”
Other providers rely largely on grants and fundraising to bridge the gap between maintaining affordability for the community, subsidizing costs for families and keeping their essential businesses open.
A community in crisis
There is a lot being done both locally and on the state level to attempt to amend the funding challenges for all providers. In fact, many child care providers did express gratitude for the county and even the state for what they’ve been able to provide thus far.
“The state has been amazing and the county has been beyond amazing,” Rutty said. “I’m very, very thankful for them,” referring to the county as well as the town of Avon.
“The loans are keeping us afloat right now,” Womochil said, referring to PPP loans as well as the grants and other supplements and funding Eagle County has provided.
Eagle County has certainly begun to put its weight behind the issue of child care.
“To address the child care crisis in Eagle County, we need to increase access to high quality early education and care for children aged zero to five while keeping the cost affordable for working families,” wrote Eagle County Communications Manager Justin Patrick in an email.
Currently, the county spends over $1.5 million to support early-childhood care and education in the county. Of this $1.5 million, in 2020, $54,000 went to support recruitment and hiring, $21,304 was invested in one-time grants to address health and safety concerns, $326,000 went toward the salary supplements and $427,800 was invested to make infant and toddler care financially viable for providers. Just earlier this year, the county launched a simplified grant process for all providers.
According to Patrick, there is also $500 million that has been allocated by the state to support early childhood and the county is waiting to see where the funds will go.
Outside of investments, the county is putting manpower behind creating a special tax district for early childhood care, called the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Special Tax District. The coalition “is made up of a diverse group of leaders from Aspen to Parachute who are interested in investing in and making improvements to the early childhood system,” he wrote, adding that the town of Vail, town of Avon and the Vail Valley Partnership have all been invited to the table.
Other local municipalities and organizations are also doing their part outside of this coalition. This has shifted as the community has realized that the challenges facing providers are not relegated to them alone. The impacts of the challenges child care providers face only compound the existing workforce issues.
“Making sure that child care is available to all children that need it is not just a child care issue: it involves looking at affordable housing, health care, transportation, and of course workforce,” said Samantha Markovitz, the early childhood systems coordinator for Eagle County. “Investing in childcare is an investment in our current and future community.”
The Vail Valley Foundation has played a large role, according to Patrick, in bringing together stakeholders. Similarly, Smith gave credit to Chris Romer, CEO and president of the Vail Valley Partnership, for getting the business community more involved in conversations.
As one example of business intervention, The Sonnenalp hotel in Vail responded to their employees need for child care and partnered with a local child care center to reserve spots for employees by paying their deposit.
The town of Vail, for its part, has been supporting its local child care centers for many years, according to Krista Miller, director of human resources and risk management department for the town of Vail. Not only has it helped in securing child care space in its community, but it has supplied funding to the programs.
“It’s working individually with those entities on their specific needs,” Miller said. For Vail Child Care, this has included supporting its recruitment and advertising available jobs.
“I hope that we can help those centers bolster their wages to be a competitive level that will improve their ability to recruit and retain an important local workforce, but I would say the same thing goes for their limited benefit packages,” Miller said.
Recently, the town has also identified an opportunity for further funding. According to Miller, at a recent Town Council retreat the council identified an opportunity to earmark funds — which total around $500,000 — from the tobacco tax for child care. While not finalized, Miller said the council expressed support for moving forward on it.
There isn’t one answer for all the problems facing child care providers, governments and local businesses, but overall the community is coming together to tackle the issue, together.
“We need to attack it from multiple avenues. We need to figure out what’s the appropriate support for these centers to help them become operational,” Miller said. “I think there’s a lot of ways we can do that.”
Scott Miller and Noelle Harff contributed to the reporting of this story.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.