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‘On thinner ice than ever’: County plans child care blueprint as parents’ options dwindle and costs soar

A woman sits at a small table in a child care facility with two toddlers
Site supervisor Cecilia Petty, lower right, attends to babies to 3-year-olds at the Children of the Rainbow Childcare Services in Barrio Logan on Friday, March 20, 2020.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Public investment in child care is needed to keep children safe and parents in the workforce, speakers told the San Diego County Board of Supervisors at a conference on the issue this week.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday, Oct. 12, to develop a child care blueprint and asked staff to return with a plan within eight months.

Child care costs have skyrocketed, with the average annual cost for infant care in San Diego climbing to $19,000. A family with two young children spends, on average, about 40 percent of their income on daycare, according to the county.

“Parents can expect to pay more for licensed infant care than for in-state college tuition,” said Pamela Gray Payton, vice president of community impact for the San Diego Foundation.

And that’s for the fortunate families who can get it, experts said.

Many licensed child care centers have lengthy wait lists, and large swaths of the county are “child care deserts,” with spots for just a fraction of their young children, they added. Most East County communities, along with parts of the city of San Diego, have spaces for fewer than 20 percent of children under 2 years old.

“Even before the pandemic, we knew there was a gap in available child care spaces, but the pandemic has only increased the ongoing challenges for provider space,” Gray Payton said.

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Since 2019, the region has lost nearly 2,000 licensed child care slots, as care providers struggled to stay in business, she said. Despite the high costs of care to parents, the profit margin for providers is thin and wages for workers are low, experts said.

That’s largely because it’s a labor-intensive business, with required staffing ratios of one care provider to four infants or toddlers, said Kim McDougal, executive director of the YMCA Childcare Resource Service. Facility costs also consume much of the revenue for child care businesses, and family-run sites must contend with rising rents, experts said.

“Many providers who are renting face exponential rent increases year after year, while also coming face to face with landlords who simply do not want them running these essential and necessary businesses out of their properties,” said Johanna Hester, assistant executive director for United Domestic Workers Local 3930, which represents child care workers.

Parents who work outside of typical business hours, such as law enforcement officers or health care workers, find it particularly difficult to find child care that fits their work hours, experts said. The few providers who offer 24-hour care often drive older kids to school, adding gas, insurance and other transportation costs to their business expenses, Hester said.

The high costs and limited spaces pose problems for employers who strive to retain employees, said Stefanie Benvenuto, vice president of public affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. Although the region’s workforce has nearly returned to pre-pandemic numbers, she said child care businesses have not recovered.

Parents are struggling to pay escalating child care costs, as government and businesses try to expand availability

“That means that those workers who come back are on thinner ice than ever,” she said. “Our employers are routinely trying to outrun the high cost of living in San Diego, and usually they’re losing that battle.”

With licensed child care spots in short supply, some parents are turning to unlicensed centers, which may pose health and safety risks to kids in their care, experts said.

Often, the high cost and low availability of child care force parents to choose between their jobs and their children’s safety, limiting the number of workers — particularly women — who remain in the workforce, experts said.

“Many parents are forced to make a difficult decision,” Gray Payton said. “‘Do I stay engaged in the workforce, or do I care for my children?’”

Benvenuto said many businesses are seeking ways to make care more affordable and accessible to employees, including by subsidizing blocks of child care slots for their workers, providing on-site care or sharing a child care location with other businesses.

Parents of young children search for work-life balance after working through the pandemic.

“Employers want to be a part of the solutions, but they can’t be the only part of the solution,” she said.

County supervisors have already dedicated a portion of pandemic relief money and other funds to child care, including $10 million for vouchers for care for front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, $1 million to support YMCA summer camp operations and scholarships, and $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward child care.

“The single best thing we can do to help kids, parents, our business, our economy and our workers is tackle this issue of how we can get to a place of quality, affordable, universal child care,” Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said.


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