WILLMAR—Not having enough safe, affordable and accessible child care facilities is being tagged as a growing barrier to economic development in west central Minnesota, including Kandiyohi County where it’s estimated another 776 child care slots are currently needed.
Businesses that struggle to find workers because potential employees are unable to find child care—and child care providers who struggle to stay in business because of regulations and employee pay—are major components of a growing problem with far-reaching economic implications, according to testimony heard last week during a Senate task force meeting in Willmar.
“Child care is becoming a real economic development issue in rural Minnesota,” said Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, chairman of the Senate task force gathering information about the issue.
At that listening session in Willmar, a single mom of two talked about how difficult it is to work until 6 p.m. when her daycare provider closes at 5 p.m.
“How can I get ahead without child care?” she asked.
Home day care providers talked about inconsistent application of regulations, how caring for school-aged kids an hour or two a day eliminates a full-time placement of a younger child under current license limitations, and how high home insurance costs to operate a home day care and the lack of health care makes it difficult for independent owners to stay in business.
Operators of day care centers talked about the challenge of finding licensable space, difficulties in paying qualified teaching staff enough to keep them on the job and the long list of names of children on a waiting list to get in.
Women who are thinking about getting pregnant are already looking for day care, said one provider—only half joking.
“We’re all hearing this same complaint about child care in all corners of the state,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisolm, a member of the task force.
While the senators have the potential to create statewide changes to regulations and licensing, regional entities are also tackling the issue in hopes of finding local solutions to the current shortage.
The lack of adequate child care facilities in the region has been identified as a key issue by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
During its strategic planning session earlier this year, the EDC said its goal is to increase the number of child care options and to secure sustainable solutions for existing and new child care centers and family child care providers—including diverse child care options.
Working together with United Community Action in Willmar, an 18-month, grant-funded Rural Child Care Innovation Program was launched last month in Kandiyohi County with about 20 community stakeholders.
One of the next steps will be townhall community meetings to hear from more people about options for alleviating the shortage of child care spaces in ways that will benefit children, families, providers, businesses and the community.
Finding solutions means “bringing all the parties together” to find “something that’s right for our community,” said Debi Brandt, of United Community Action in Willmar, in an interview.
Part of the Rural Child Care Innovation Program includes a survey that shows stark numbers about the shortage of child care openings in the region.
Conducted by First Children’s Finance—which is leading the county through the program— the survey indicates there is currently a need for 776 additional child care slots in Kandiyohi County.
The survey, which focused on parents in the workforce who have children under the age of 5, shows the largest shortage in Willmar, where there is a shortage of 164. That’s followed closely by households in the Spicer zip code where there is a shortage of 143 slots and New London where there is a shortage of 112 spaces.
Statistics from 2016 collected by Child Care Aware of Southwest Minnesota tell a similar story in area counties.
Meeker County is short of 356 child care slots; Chippewa County—165; Renville County—145; Swift County—144; Yellow Medicine—90; Big Stone—84; and Lac qui Parle—57.
Not having enough child care options means children are sometimes left in the care of siblings who are too young to be caregivers or it can mean adults are not able to take jobs or work overtime hours, which can impact the economic viability of the employee and employer.
Sometimes it means grandparents leave the workforce early to take care of grandchildren, another hit to employers in rural Minnesota.
Brianna Mumme, economic development director from Redwood County, said in 2003 there were 88 day care providers in that county. Now there about 46.
“We just don’t have enough,” Mumme told the Senate task force.
“We’re struggling to sustain our businesses, and without adequate child care, we don’t have that tool in the toolbox,” she said. “We’re trying to find affordable solutions.”
Scott Marquardt, from the Southwest Initiative Foundation, called the current shortage of day care spots a “child care crisis” that is the fastest growing issue for economic development.
He told the task force that he can’t go anywhere without employers talking to him about how the lack of child care affects their businesses.
Marquardt said collaborations between schools, employers, churches and other public and private entities is needed to help find solutions.
Several day care providers told the task force they feel hamstrung by rules that limit their ability to take on additional children.
Cindy Stelter, who has been doing home day care for 45 years in Kimball, said she gets calls “like crazy” but has no room. “I feel so sad about it,” she told the Senate task force.
Stelter said she doesn’t make a lot of money at her job and knows that parents who are desperate for child care are willing to pay more, but she said she doesn’t want to charge higher fees that would hurt families.
She said, however, some changes in licensing regarding school-aged children, and providing consistent application of regulations, could help reduce the child care shortage and increase income and self-esteem of providers who play a vital role in the economic vitality of the region.
West Central Tribune by Carolyn Lange