KDKA on the serious childcare challenges in the Pittsburgh region

Thousands of kids in our area are on waiting lists for daycare, part of what one advocacy organization calls a serious staffing shortage across Pennsylvania, KDKA-TV reports.

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 their holiday show should have twice as many kids as it does.

“We had almost 20 staff, and now we’re down to 13,” says the Center’s director Sandra Merlo. “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. She says 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 says.

According to a survey by the Start Strong PA campaign, 92% of child care centers across Pennsylvania report staffing shortages.

In a survey completed by about one-quarter of the childcare centers across Southwest Pennsylvania, 386 classrooms have closed, and 6,274 more kids could be served at these locations if there was enough staff.

In Allegheny County alone, 315 classrooms have closed and 5,304 kids are on waiting lists. The actual number could be four times higher since this survey data reflects only a quarter of the childcare centers in the county.

Sandra gets the calls from concerned parents, she says: “I get three phone calls or four phone calls a day, and I hear sad stories.  I hear people tell me they’re on 8 or 9 waiting lists and my heart just melts.”

The business model makes it a challenge. Childcare centers can’t increase revenue because tuition would cost too much for most families. And yet childcare is very labor-intensive. So they need subsidies to hire more employees and pay them better.

The American Rescue Plan helped with grants, and the “Build Back Better” plan, if it passes, is expected to provide longer-term funding.

But those in the industry say what’s needed is for communities to value the work of early childhood educators.

Neff says, “85% of a child’s brain is developed by age 3, 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.”

Merlo adds, “They deserve more because they’re doing an important job for the future, and we have to take care of the staff.”

Looking to help? Trying Together says one way you can help is to let your legislators know you support more money for child care.

And if you’re struggling to find child care for your kids, one resource you can try is the Allegheny Child Care Find Tool.