PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- The country is in a child care crisis, leading to thousands of kids in our area on waiting lists for day care.
At the Franciscan Child Day Care Center near Whitehall, there's nothing like the sound of children singing to make you feel the holiday spirit. But the center's holiday show should have twice as many kids as it does.
Director Sandra Merlo said, "We had almost 20 staff, and now we're down to 13. ... Now we're down to five classrooms where we had 11, so we've lost half our business. We've had 140 at a time, and now we have 52. That's pretty bad."
Merlo has been in the industry for 34 years and said the center had to close during the early months of the pandemic. After that, many employees found new jobs that are safer than working in close contact with unvaccinated children or jobs that pay more.
Emily Neff, director of Public Policy for Trying Together, a non-profit that advocates for early childhood education, says pay is the biggest barrier. The average pay for child care employees is $10.69 an hour.
"When these folks can go and get a job at Target or Michael's for $15 an hour or a much more livable wage, they're going to do that," Neff said.
According to a survey by Start Strong PA Campaign, 92% of child care centers across Pennsylvania report staffing shortages.
In just about one-quarter of child care centers across Southwest Pennsylvania that responded to a survey, 386 classrooms closed and 6,274 more kids could be served if there was enough staff.
In Allegheny County alone, 315 classrooms closed and 5,304 kids are on waiting lists. The actual number could be four times higher since this is only a quarter of the child care centers in the county.
"I get three phone calls or four phone calls a day, and I hear sad stories. I hear people tell me they're on eight or nine waiting lists, and my heart just melts," Merlo said.
The business model makes it a challenge. Child care centers can't increase revenue because tuition would cost too much for most families, and child care is very labor-intensive.
So the centers need subsidies to hire more employees and pay them better.
The American Rescue Plan helped with grants, and the Build Back Better plan, if passed, is expected to provide long-term funding.
Those in the industry said it's about valuing the work of early childhood educators.
"Eighty-five percent of a child's brain is developed by age 3," Neff said. "So I think that the statistics are there, that we are showing the research is there, showing why they're important. We need to be paying them more and the investments just aren't there."
Trying Together said one way you can help is to let your legislators know you support more money for child care.
If you're struggling to find child care for your kids, you can try the Allegheny Child Care Find Tool here.
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