Staffing shortages worsen childcare availability in Valley

Local zip codes are some of the most in-need of additional childcare in all of King County.

Starting in January, Tammy Hammond will have to turn away three families who had been using her childcare center for infant care, leaving them without much of an option in the highly competitive Snoqualmie Valley childcare scene.

Although the room is built to accommodate 14 infants, Hammond, the executive director of the Explore and Grow Learning Center in Snoqualmie, will have to close it until at least three more teachers can be hired.

“With the pandemic, we’ve been getting grant money left and right, but we have no staff to hire,” she said. “I’ve been in childcare since my early 20s and trying to get staff has never been an issue. This is the worst ever.”

Access to childcare and after-school care has been a perpetual struggle for Snoqualmie Valley parents over the years, but an inability for providers to hire staff has only worsened the situation.

According to a 2021 data by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families, Snoqualmie Valley zip codes are some of the most in-need of additional childcare in all of King County.

The data estimates that of those in need of child care in King County, only 38% are having their needs met. Combining Snoqualmie, North Bend and Fall City, that number is around 22%.

That unmet childcare need can translate into devastating impacts on the state and local economy. The Washington State Department of Commerce estimates a lack of childcare keeps 133,000 workers out of the labor force. It is also likely responsible for at least part of the Valley’s prolific labor shortage, where nearly 3,000 jobs remain unfilled.

Caitlin Young, a childcare consultation nurse with Encompass NW, who works alongside many Valley childcare providers, said hiring in childcare has been a continual problem, even before the pandemic, both nationally and in the Valley. The Valley gets most of its lower-income workforce from South King County, but there is not reliable transportation service, besides a personal vehicle, between the two areas.

Staffing issues have also plagued before- and after-school care, said Megan Castellano, the executive director with the YMCA’s Early Learning programs.

The YMCA, which traditionally offers before- and after-school programs at Cascade View, Opstad, Snoqualmie, Fall City and Timber Ridge elementary schools, has only opened care at Timber Ridge this year, amid staffing shortages.

The program is currently serving 40 students, while 15 remain on a wait-list. Castellano said they are hoping to find more applicants as more children get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Both ourselves and other providers in the area are really struggling to find qualified staff in the Snoqualmie Valley area,” she said. “We used to get a lot older high school students and college students, but we’re not seeing that.”

One contributing factor to the shortages could be the type of workers who have historically been supplying most of the state’s childcare are also the one’s disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Over 90% of the state’s childcare workforce are women, almost all are low-income and half are people of color. All of these groups left the workforce at disproportionate rates when the pandemic broke out, according to the Pew Research Center.

Childcare workers are also critically underpaid, despite their importance to the economy, and in some cases require additional training beyond a high school diploma.

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley, Washington state childcare workers had a median annual salary under $33,000 in 2019, well below what is needed to live in the Valley.

“Childcare is essential. It’s essential for kids to have quality education, it’s essential for parents to provide for their families, but it’s not a service that you can make a lot of money at — or even any money at,” said Nela Cumming, the executive director of Encompass NW, who also served on the King County Children and Families Strategy Task Force.

Despite offering $20 an hour, alongside additional benefits, Hammond said she has been unable to hire the staff necessary to keep all of her rooms open.

Despite a lack of workers, the demand for care remains high. Each week, Hammond said she receives between five or six inquiries from parents that they are unable to fulfill. The demand is even greater for infant care, where it is common for care to be booked up to a year in advance, she said.

“There’s no place to go, there’s no childcare available,” she said. “I think the hardest is people who just moved to the area. They say ‘we’re looking for childcare,’ and we have to turn them away and say ‘good luck.’”

There are a limited number of Valley providers who offer infant care, most due to the cost, Young said.

The cost of care for an infant is significantly higher than for older children because of teacher-child ratio laws, where a single teacher can be responsible for no more than four infants at a time. That’s compared to pre-kindergarten care where a single teacher can have up to 10 students.

Young said the cost of childcare varies by provider, location and the age of a child, but can easily range from $1,000 to $2,000 a month per child. A 2019 report pegged the county median cost at $1,222 per month.

To combat this high cost, the state has introduced a subsidy program intended to allow lower-income families to afford care. However, this doesn’t always go as intended, as very few childcare facilities in the Valley accept those subsidies, meaning parents in need of care have to drive elsewhere.

“Some people might stay home because the amount they spend on childcare is more than they’d make working,” Young said. “It’s especially hard for folks going back to lower-wage jobs.”

This can create a trickle-effect in an area like the Snoqualmie Valley that already has a low number of residents looking to work in low-wage positions. A lack of childcare serves as a barrier to those who might otherwise be working service or hospitality jobs.

“We tell three families they can’t bring their kid in January, so those three families are trying to find daycare, what’s that do to their jobs?” Hammond said. “If you can’t find childcare, how do you go to work?”

Hammond fears that the problem could begin to compound on itself, with many independently owned childcare providers going under because they are unable to sustain themselves.

“If we don’t have staff, we can’t serve the community,” she said. “That’s what it all comes down to.”