Simplified: Day cares are struggling with staffing shortages and rising operational costs. And some providers are looking to state and local officials for help in finding ways to ease the burdens they're facing.

Why it matters

  • Day care providers are the "workforce behind the workforce," said Embe CEO Kerri Tietgen, and that's especially important as labor shortages hit many industries across the city.
  • Many providers are struggling financially, facing workforce shortages, rising costs and background check delays. And, on top of it all, there just aren't enough spots available for the kids who need child care.
"The perfect storm is happening, and we as a community need to start talking about that," Tietgen said.

What are some of the issues facing day cares right now?

It's worth noting here that for the purposes of this article, I'm focusing on day care centers. In-home day cares will and do face their own unique challenges as well.

Staffing. As with many industries right now, child care centers are having a hard time finding workers.

  • Bri McCarty, owner of Truks-N-Trykes, said she's stopped taking in new kids because she's got unfilled positions and needs to make sure she's got enough staff to care for the kids currently enrolled.

Background check delays. Somewhat related to staffing, delays in processing fingerprints at the state have caused some challenges for child care centers as well.

  • A federal law fully implemented in September of this year requires an FBI fingerprint background check for child care employees. Right now, it takes about a month to get fingerprints processed, meaning new hires are in some cases stuck waiting to start work.
  • The Department of Social Services has requested a waiver from the federal requirement child care staff beginning work based upon a cleared state criminal history or FBI background screening, according to DSS Secretary Laurie Gill. That waiver has yet to be approved.

Accessibility. Day cares in town don't necessarily line up with the needs of parents.

  • For example, Tietgen said, care outside normal work hours is hard to find.
  • Additionally, the new centers coming to town don't necessarily match up where all of the child care needs are, she added. For low-income families, those closer to the center of town, or those with less ability to travel to newer centers farther out, options are much more limited.

Ratios. Child care facilities must follow strict child-to-provider ratios, which vary depending on the age of the children from 1:5 to 1:15.

  • There's also a discrepancy between ratios for in-home providers vs. centers, said Corri Poore, owner of Little Tykes University. In-home day cares can have a 1:12 ratio with all children under age 6, whereas centers must stick to 1:10 in that age range.
"Spread over the course of a year, that extra two children, it comes out to about $20,000 (in potential income lost)," Poore said, adding that that's money he could pass on to cover costs and raise wages for staff.

Rising costs. Inflation is hitting child care centers at the same time that they're juggling a need to increase wages.

  • It can be hard to compete when other businesses in town are raising wages, McCarty said, especially because day care centers' income is essentially capped because they can only have so many kids based on state ratios.
  • Plus, the prices of basic items are increasing, from milk to paper towels, she added.
"We want to do the best that we possibly can to keep it affordable, but it almost feels like everything’s stacked against us," McCarty said.

How could lawmakers help?

It could be as simple as looking for consistency in state law between in-home day cares and centers, Poore said, especially when it comes to ratios.

Another potential way to help would be looking at licensing requirements, Tietgen said. She wondered if current rules and regulations might be prohibiting some who would otherwise enter the industry.

There's also just a general need for funding. There's a gap between what it actually costs to provide child care and what parents are paying for that care, Tietgen said.

  • Centers don't want to pass those costs along to parents, but without additional support, they're finding themselves up against a wall.

It's too soon to say if any of these issues could be fixed in Pierre – in fact, it's too soon to say if there will even be any bills introduced in the upcoming 2022 session related to child care – but centers are starting to make their needs known.