Massachusetts child care centers struggling with a shortage of workers. Why it’s happening

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Ashley Soebroto

Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON  Amid a nationwide child care crisis, Massachusetts struggles to retain and bring in early educators due to the state’s high living costs and the industry’s low wage and benefits.

After the pandemic shuttered thousands of child care centers across the country, the lack of early education became a glaring issue, from long wait lines to unaffordable care. One factor of that inaccessible child care is a workforce shortage. 

“This is happening across the country, and Massachusetts is struggling to retain early educators in the workforce,” said Anne Douglass, founding executive director for the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at the UMass Boston. “A significant segment of the industry is unable to find enough educators to operate at full capacity.”

Douglass said early education workers are paid low wages and offered few benefits — including for retirement and health care — which provides little incentive for them to stay in the industry. Child care centers then lose staff, and are then able to offer even less care.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, child care workers’ families throughout the country are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers’ families. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, as of May 2022, child care workers in Massachusetts are paid a median hourly wage of $18.30.

Child care centers are solely reliant on tuition payments

Lauren Kennedy, co-president and chief strategy officer of Boston-based advocacy group Neighborhood Villages, said wages are low because families are given the responsibility to pay for the cost of care.

Local, state and federal governments fund part of the day-to-day operation for K-12 public schools; however, the only thing that funds child care centers is the tuition families pay for early education services, which is why they are limited in what they can offer for wages, according to Kennedy. 

“This vicious circle just keeps repeating itself where quality and educator wages are just fundamentally pitted against family affordability,” she said. “So the only way that we fix this … is by having the government step in and offset the cost of child care.”

Kennedy added that the state’s high cost of living is a contributing factor. “I imagine some of the pressures that our early educators feel and why their salaries also don’t go far enough is because this is just a state that is very, very expensive to live in,” she said. “So the cost of housing, a rising cost of food inflation, all of it is going to contribute to why $17 an hour just isn’t going to cut it.”

Douglass said solving the worker shortage are simple: pay living wages that are comparable to those paid by educators who work in public schools; offer hiring and retention bonuses; and improve work bonuses.

“I really do think that if we wanted to come up with an idea about how we would drive early educators out of the field and decimate this industry, we would do exactly what we’re doing now,” Douglass said. 

What it takes to run a child care center

State regulations also play a part in the high costs of running a child care center, according to Kennedy, due to Massachusetts’ low child-to-teacher ratio standards. 

In Massachusetts, centers must employ at least one educator for every three or four infants in their care, with higher ratios for older children. While this aligns with federal regulations, state requirements for teacher-to-student ratios are stricter than other states and industry group recommendations.

However, experts don’t recommend loosening those regulations.

“It’s an important aspect of both safety and quality that we keep our ratios low,” Kennedy said. “But when we keep those ratios low, it means that you need more adults in the classroom, and then that drives up the cost of care.”

Douglass added that the strict standards are for the safety of both children and adults, considering how physically and mentally taxing the work can be. 

“Early childhood programs are unable, in many cases, to find and retain enough staff to keep all classrooms open,” Douglass said. “That’s everything about child care — delivering the service with quality is all about educators. It’s a human enterprise.”

Even with increased state funding programs such as the C3 Grants, which are monthly state-funded grants given to child care providers for day-to-day operational costs, finding employees remains a challenge.

“Every position’s salary has gone up and otherwise we would be losing people, I believe, as fast as where we’re gaining,” said Heidi Kaufman, executive director of education at the MetroWest YMCA in Framingham. “One of the things that is tricky that I hadn’t expected: filling staff vacancies overall is challenging.”

Struggles to make a living wage in a state with high living costs

While the difficulty to retain and employ more early educators isn’t unique to Massachusetts, the state’s high cost of living makes it increasingly difficult for child care providers to find workers.

Kaufman knows numerous employees in the YMCA’s education and pre-kindergarten program who have struggled with affordable housing and food insecurity.

Kaufman noted one educator who had moved to New Jersey and wanted to return to Massachusetts, but was unable to because they couldn’t find affordable housing.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “I have staff who have struggled with homelessness … living in their cars and sleeping in their cars. Unfortunately, it was not too many nights, but one night is too many from my perspective.”

According to a 2020 report from the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at UMass Boston, nearly half of child center educators worry about paying for health care, losing pay due to illness and taking time off to care for family. More than 40% of center educators report they do not have enough money for food.

Kaufman added that the MetroWest YMCA’s pre-kindergarten programs have had to be creative and come up with solutions to enroll more kids in their programs without sacrificing quality of education. One example was having their leadership team take on classroom responsibilities.

“People who are not typically scheduled to be in classrooms, we have needed to put them into classrooms more frequently,” she said. “So that way, we can continue to serve the children that we have committed to being able to serve without jeopardizing quality or safety.”

Kennedy said early education workers struggle to provide child care for their own children.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a typical child care worker in Massachusetts would have to spend 75.6% of their earnings to put their own child in infant care.

“I don’t fault any teacher for saying, particularly many of our teachers or parents themselves, ‘I can’t afford to put my own kid in child care because the pay is so low,’” Kennedy said. “Any of us right now would consider leaving for another field.”

Providing education programs for educators

Douglass added that another element of the worker shortage is educational debt forgiveness. 

In Massachusetts, the general entry requirement to work in child care is some work experience and the equivalent of a college course in child development, she said. However, in some other states, a bachelor’s degree is required. 

Douglass said some people leave the field because they aren’t making enough to pay for the educational debt associated with the training.

“Caring for groups of young children and educating groups of very young children is extremely complex,” she said. “If you’ve ever spent time with young children, they’re very different developmentally than a group of 10- or 14-year-olds, and so … there’s a unique set of skills and expertise that’s needed.” 

She explained that many child care educators express a desire to attain higher credentials and certifications. Thus, giving workers a pathway to receive those credentials debt-free would not only provide more quality child care, but also incentivize workers to remain the field.

“I truly feel for families who are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Kaufman said. “Hopefully, more people will join the pipeline because the work is incredibly impactful and meaningful.

“But it’s also incredibly difficult.”

This story originally appeared in the MetroWest Daily News.

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