MOUNT VERNON — Child care is on the minds of parents and business owners alike.
Economists see the availability of quality child care as one solution to the labor shortage facing businesses. Reports show that many parents, especially moms, would enter the workforce or work longer hours if they had adequate child care.
Locally, employers report that the lack of child care affects potential new hires as well as current employees. In Knox Pages’ “Talk the Vote” last fall, residents noted child care as being an important issue, and it was part of the Citizens Agenda presented to Mount Vernon City Council in January.
As Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation, notes, child care is not one-size-fits-all. Regardless of parents’ individual needs, however, three factors shape the discussion: availability, affordability, and safety.
The three are so entwined that it is difficult to isolate one from the others. Following is a brief look at some of the issues surrounding child care in Knox County.
There are four types of child care programs found in Knox County:
•Licensed centers (7)
•Licensed Type A in-home care (1)
•Licensed Type B in-home care (7)
The Ohio Department of Job & Family Services licenses the centers and Type A and B providers. The state inspects the centers; Knox County JFS inspects the Type A and B providers.
Each type of license has restrictions on the number of children served based on the child’s age and number of staff members needed. For example, a Type A provider can care for up to 12 children at one time. However, each staff member can care for no more than six children at one time and no more than three children under age 2.
KCJFS does not have hard numbers as to how many child care “slots” are available county-wide nor the number needed to alleviate the child care shortage.
“Infants 18 months and below. That’s the biggest need,” said Linda Purdy, child care coordinator for Knox County JFS through Opportunity Knox. “That also comes back to the number of infants a provider can take compared to a toddler or school-age child.”
She said that in addition to provider capacity, the number of slots needed fluctuates based on parents having or not having a job.
Regarding need, Thompson does have anecdotal information based on provider waiting lists. All of the centers have waiting lists.
One has 12 on the wait list for infants and 12 for its toddlers summer program. The provider stopped taking wait-list names for ages 3-5 and has no open spots for its summer program for school-age children.
Another center has 31 on the wait list for full-time care and 29 for part time.
The two sides of affordability
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, affordable child care is 7% or less of total household income.
In Ohio, child care in 2020 for a two-income family ranged from $3,471 a year for before/after school care (5% of income) to $9,919 for an infant (10%). The percentage climbs for a single-income family.
“We don’t have a good sense of what people are having to pay for people going through unlicensed care,” said Dayne Baughman, workforce supervisor at Opportunity Knox. “We do have an idea of what private pay is at a licensed center, but not unlicensed.
“What percent of your income is affordable is up for debate,” he continued. “Naming it at one particular percent doesn’t really give a good indication.”
The ODJFS offers child care assistance for parents who meet eligibility criteria and have an income below 142% of poverty level.
Parents can receive assistance for all or part of their child care expenses. For family income up to 105% of the poverty level, there is no co-payment.
“Income guidelines increased from 130% to 142% of poverty level,” Baughman explained. “The state has been making sure more people can qualify for assistance. The good thing about child care is that once you are on, we can offer assistance up to 300%, or $6,550 a month.”
He said that while the higher assistance level does not affect the number of people looking for child care, it does increase the number of people JFS can help.
Since it is state assistance, parents can use it in any county. Crossing county lines helps parents find child care near their work or along the commute route.
The flip side to affordability is on the provider side. According to numbers JFS provided to the development foundation last fall, anything more than $14 an hour is a livable wage and keeps a family of three off of public assistance.
Baughman said the state average for a child care worker is $23,000 a year, or $11.06 an hour.
“There is a tug between what [a provider] needs to make and what [a family] can afford to pay,” he said. “We want to make sure providers are seeing continuity of care and maximize their profit as well. The state is trying to insulate providers and parents from uncertainty.”
One of the ways the state does that is by providing financial assistance for up to 13 weeks if a parent loses their job. That 13 weeks allows the parent to continue with child care while providing time to find another job, enroll in school, or seek job training. It also provides stability for the provider.
In its effort to remove economic barriers for providers, the state reduced the $250 application fee to $25.
Safety is an essential part of child care, but providing that safety can become a barrier as well as increase the cost. The regulations relating to the ratio of workers to children based on age are one example.
“It provides a layer of protection. You know people have the training to keep a child safe,” Baughman said. “We are putting our vulnerable children in someone else’s care. We never want to see a child get hurt in any type of child care.”
“I reassure providers that it’s for their safety also,” Purdy added.
Safety regulations relating to a provider’s housing situation present another potential obstacle. Requirements relate to indoor and outdoor space and might necessitate home improvements or fencing.
“It does mean someone from the state or county will be coming into the home and making suggestions,” Baughman said. “It is not a values judgment, they are just looking at safe child care.”
ODJFS requires providers to undergo training classes such as first aid, abuse and neglect, and CPR. Background checks and fingerprinting for each staff member are also required.
“There is not an insubstantial amount of rules, but all of those rules are there for a reason,” Baughman said.
Purdy said that in her role as child care coordinator, she frequently gets calls from people interested in providing child care. Sometimes it is grandparents, other times it is someone interested in “baby sitting.”
“Unless you are really dedicated to wanting to do that, they just don’t follow through,” she said. “You have to be interested enough to go through all of this.”
“There is definitely a time commitment that goes with being a provider,” Baughman said, citing the training classes as an example. “We have money set aside to help them get certifications. It’s not an outlay of money but an outlay of time.”
A positive change involves Step Up to Quality requirements (SUTQ), a joint effort between ODJFS and the Ohio Department of Education. ODJFS previously required annual recertification for centers and in-home providers.
Now, recertification is not necessary unless a provider wants to change its star level or make modifications. The change reduces bureaucracy for providers.
SUTCO recognizes and promotes learning and development programs that exceed licensed health and safety regulations. Ratings range from one to five stars and are related to the degree of educational opportunities available through the child care provider, not the safety aspect.
The higher the rating, the higher the number of staff members who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. As Baughman points out, that typically means a higher cost for the child care.
On the provider side, a higher rating means greater reimbursement from ODJFS.
There are no easy answers to solving the child care shortage, but Baughman said he thinks there is a strong and unified push for groups to start to work together. JFS is working with local nonprofit organizations and creating its own survey to assess local needs.
Additionally, a work group through Knox Public Health is looking at child care, and the city of Mount Vernon has allocated $10,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money toward child care.
“Our goal is to facilitate moving people into providing care,” Baughman said.
The Knox County Area Development Foundation is asking the community for input on its child care survey. To take the survey, click here or visit knoxadf.com. The survey closes March 4.