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Child care’s employment crisis: Low pay, legal hoops make it hard to hire

Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center
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Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center

The child care industry is facing an employment crisis.

Thousands of workers left the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, providers are still struggling to find and keep employees.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average of 153,100 jobs in child care each year over the next decade.

Many factors have been identified as deterrents for people entering the child care sector, from the overall perception of the industry, to low pay and insufficient employment benefits.

“There’s the mindset that we’re just babysitters, but we are not. We’re educators,” said Ruth Buckmire, owner of His Daycare in Fountain Inn.

Fewer children can be enrolled at child care centers when the providers are understaffed due to staffing ratios required by the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

For example, Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center can accommodate 252 children based on the square footage of their space. Co-owner Aaron Seckinger said the center only has around 176 children due to the number of people on staff.

“Right now, we are definitely one of the schools that’s turning away children that need care because we can’t give it to them,” Seckinger said.

Small Impressions Child Development Center in Taylors offers daycare and after-school care to children in the local community.
Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center
/
Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center
Small Impressions Child Development Center in Taylors offers daycare and after-school care to children in the local community.

Pay and benefits

Low wages are one of the main barriers to hiring more child care workers. People are opting to work in other industries that pay more than child care providers can provide.

Many child care programs also cannot afford to offer health care benefits to their employees. Child care workers are twice as likely as the general workforce to have no form of health insurance, according to the Center for American Progress.

“How are you going to attract people to come into the field when you can’t pay them more than $10 an hour (and) when you can’t provide them with benefits,” asked Shelley Summer, operations director for Palmetto Shared Service Alliance.

Providing higher wages is easier said than done. Some child care center owners like LaVonda Bowman are hesitant to raise the rates they charge to offset the cost of pay increases. Bowman, the director of the Small Impressions Child Development Center, said she currently pays her staff between $12 and $18 an hour.

Related – Child care shortage costs SC economy $1.4B annually: Report“I’m keeping my rates affordable for the people I’m trying to serve because a lot of my parents here are single parents,” Bowman said.

DSS launched a pilot program called SC BOO$T in February to help increase wages for child care workers across South Carolina. The program provides one-time bonuses to individuals working in regulated DSS child care facilities using American Rescue Plan Act supplemental funds.

Connelly-Anne Ragley, director of communications for DSS, said that after the one-time payment program, the department hopes to approach the General Assembly about a long-term wage-supplement or stipend program.

The Palmetto Shared Service Alliance resource platform helps providers access affordable telehealth, telemental health, dental, life and vision benefits for their employees.

“All of these are incredibly affordable policies that can be used as a benefit even if (the provider) can’t afford full-on insurance,” Summer said. “We try to get directors to think creatively about what they potentially can offer as a benefit.”

Background check

The extensive employee background-check process required for child care workers can be another obstacle.

In South Carolina, the law requires that before someone can be employed by a child care center, he or she must undergo background checks including:

  • A state fingerprint-based background check by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division for previous criminal history
  • A fingerprint-based background check by the FBI for previous criminal history
  • A check of the South Carolina Child Abuse and Neglect Registry and Database by DSS
  • A search of the National Crime Information Center’s National Sex Offender Registry and state sex offender registry

A person’s criminal history, sex-offender status, and child abuse and neglect history will also need to be checked in other states they lived in during the last five years.
The timeline of the background-check process can take between a week and a month to complete. Seckinger said many applicants can’t wait that long to start a job and instead need immediate work to earn money. Candidates often end up finding work elsewhere.

To speed up the process, Amber Bishop, director at Kids ‘R’ Kids, said the state allows child care providers to view criminal records while waiting on the federal background check.

The FBI background check is conducted by a third-party fingerprint provider called IdentoGo by Idemia, which holds a statewide contract with South Carolina. Ragley said the contract is administered by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, not DSS.

DSS manages the South Carolina Child Abuse and Neglect Registry and Database. The department created an online portal in 2022 for providers to use instead of mailing in requests for a registry and database check. Ragley said the portal was created in response to feedback the department received from providers to help speed up the processing time for registry checks.

“We have tried to streamline that process,” Ragley said.

Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center
/
Kids ‘R’ Kids at Pelham Medical Center

Seeking solutions

Other strategies are being created to help child care providers maintain a full staff and improve the hiring process for caregivers.

A barrier in the state’s child care worker requirements is the provision that a new employee must have six months of experience. If the person doesn’t meet this requirement, they must be supervised by another staff member for six months.

Ragley said the requirement is being reevaluated by the state. Amendments to the requirement have been proposed through bill S.862. Instead of the six-month requirement, the employee would have to complete 15 hours of health and safety service-provider training and be supervised by an experienced caregiver for at least 30 days.

The law stated that a person must have at least a high school diploma or GED certificate to qualify for working in child care. A proposed amendment to this requirement would allow a child care provider to hire an employee with a certificate of completion or a South Carolina High School Employability Credential.

The state Senate passed the bill in February. The bill is currently awaiting a subcommittee meeting in the House of Representatives.

“We know that, you know, getting those individuals in the classroom is most important,” Ragley said. “But at the same time, we have to balance safety and you know, again, we’re making sure that we don’t do anything to change the background-check requirements.”

Palmetto Shared Service Alliance is also working to create a substitute pool for child care providers across South Carolina. Summer said there has been a tremendous need for a substitute pool for child care since before the pandemic.

“Much like what you would see in a school district, it will be a website where you log in and put that you need a teacher,” she said.

The organization received an over $100,000 grant from DSS to start the pilot program. The program will start in Anderson and Marlboro counties. Summer said they will explore all avenues to find substitutes, from recruiting technical college students to teachers on summer vacation.

“We’re very excited about that,” Summer said.

Low-pay problems

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for child care workers in South Carolina is $12.04. The mean national hourly wage is $14.22.

Staffing ratios

The South Carolina Department of Social Services outlines specific staffing ratios that all child care centers must follow.

The ratio changes with ages and requires one staff member for every:

5 children less than 1 year old

6 children 1-2 years old

8 children 2-3 years old

12 children 3-4 years old

17 children 4-5 years old

20 children 5-6 years old

23 children 6-12 years old

Job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 2% decline in the employment of child care workers from 2022 to 2032.

Employment trends

The child care industry experienced a sharp decline in the number of employees from February to April 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More information is available at beta.bls.gov/dataViewer/view/timeseries/CES6562440001.

This story was filed as part of an editorial partnership between South Carolina Public Radio and the Greenville Journal, which is responsible for its content. You can learn more about the Greenville Journal here.

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