Child care providers fueled by passion for kids, but passion alone isn’t always enough

Updated: May. 25, 2022 at 11:40 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Early childhood educators are, generally, very passionate and committed to their work. According to recent research from UW-Madison, more than 80% of child care providers in Wisconsin say that is their chosen field or in other words, the work they want to do.

“Oh, it’s definitely the kids,” Brittany Frahm a lead teacher at the Aspirus Weston YMCA said.

“It’s the best job ever because you get to come in here-- where do you get to go to work and have so many hugs,” her mother and assistant teacher, Kathy Frahm added.

Another provider who owns her own family care center in Wisconsin Rapids said when she graduated high school, having some experience working in a child care center at the age of 17, she thought she would go to school to become a school teacher. Then, the early childhood development classes would overlap and she was hooked, now practicing in the field for more than 20 years.

“It just started to just click, and it made sense and I enjoy it,” Heather Harriman said. “Call me crazy.”

“You can have a horrible, horrible day, or have a horrible morning and they come in and ‘you’re my favorite, Mona!’” Ramona Mathews, an in-home family care provider explained. “How do you not be excited about that? How do you have a bad day when they come in all excited to see you and give you big hugs and kisses?

Despite this passion for kids, Alejandra Ros Pilarz, PhD, an assistant professor with UW-Madison Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work who was part of the research team looking into the child care field, also found evidence suggesting high turnover rates in child care centers. That is something 7 Investigates has also heard from center-based providers.

The research survey also found that about half of center teachers and about a third of family care providers plan to leave the field in the next five years. Some plan to leave sooner; 18% of family care providers and 28% of center-based teachers reported they planned to leave the field in the next two years. Another 28% of center-based teachers reported having looked for a new job in the six months prior to the survey. Other than retirement, the most common reason reported for wanting to leave the field was to find a job with better compensation or more opportunity for advancement.

“We’ve sort of been relying on their passion for that worked to compensate them with low wages and low benefits,” Ros Pilarz said. “We see that that’s no longer working.”

She explained the disconnect between the high-cost burden families experience and the low wages and limited benefits providers receive is often due to many families’ inability to pay for what industry experts refer to as “the true cost of care.”

“They operate on razor-thin margins. They have other expenses. If they raise prices for families, families can’t afford to pay more,” Ros Pilarz continued. “So, they (families) leave; they just won’t be able to afford it.”

She created a hypothetical center-based classroom expense rundown to illustrate, though it does not account for any additional grant dollars or state funds this center may receive.

Alejandra Ros Pilarz created a hypothetical expense rundown for center-based child care in...
Alejandra Ros Pilarz created a hypothetical expense rundown for center-based child care in Wisconsin to illustrate why child care staff wages are so low while at the same time care is unaffordable for families.(Alejandra Ros Pilarz)

Mathews not only owns and operates her own in-home child care in Wisconsin Rapids, Honey Tree Day Care, but she also owns and runs her own accounting business part-time. So, for her calculating this out is simple. She charges $31 per child per day for kids who are with her full-time, so being cared for at her home Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. For kids that come to her part-time, which she considers three pre-scheduled days a week or less, she charges $33 per day. At most, she can have up to eight kids, though that can be less if she has more children under the age of 2 due to state regulations. She does not charge a different rate for the different age groups. She also receives some time-limited grant money. During her interview with 7 Investigates, she estimated off the top of her head that she brings in about $350 per day.

“But you don’t get that every day,” she caveated. “First of all, you know, parents take vacations. There’s (sic) spots that are open in between, things like that.”

Ramona Mathews feeds the children she cares for in her in-home child care center. She said the...
Ramona Mathews feeds the children she cares for in her in-home child care center. She said the cost of her combined food and cleaning expenses has recently gone up about $400-$500 due to rising prices.(WSAW Emily Davies)

“Now, with that money, we have to pay for our electric, our heat, our mortgage. Now, people say, ‘well, you already have electric, you already have heat.’” she continued. “I pay probably a good $100 to $150 more a month just for my electric because of where I have to keep my heat levels at for the state regulations; you’re in your home 24/7 with the daycare.”

Those regulations require that family child care providers keep their homes at temperatures between 67 and 80 degrees. It also requires a lot of laundry to ensure things like naptime linens and bathroom hand towels are cleaned regularly. Mathews said her washing machine is, practically, running every day. She goes through cleaning supplies quickly to ensure toys and surfaces are sanitized daily. There are rules related to the amount and variety of toys to ensure there are always enough activities for kids to do, and those toys break and regularly have to be replaced to keep up with quality and safety. There are also requirements around what types of food, how much, and how often children need to be fed.

“My Walmart bill is probably -- now not including meat because... I buy in bulk from a big shop -- but my Walmart bill, which does include cleaning supplies, is up $400-$500 a month. You know, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Mathews stated. “My last month’s heating bill was up $80 this month compared to the same time last year, and it was literally 4 therms difference. That’s, I mean, static, you know, those are all in there; you’ve got to do it.”

She also has an assistant teacher for who she pays $12 an hour. Plus, there is insurance coverage, which looks different for each provider depending on their services, needs, and whether they also have pets or animals on the property near or in the child care areas.

“Right now, we’re lucky that we do have the grants, but what’s going to happen when those end?”

Ros Pilarz’ research found that most family care providers work on average 60 hours a week and make a few cents above minimum wage. Center-based teachers typically making about $13 an hour. A lot of providers report having food insecurities, specifically 27% of center-based teachers and 20% of family providers. About one in five center-based teachers reported it was very or extremely difficult to live on their household income.

Providers were found to rely on public benefits too. About a quarter of center-based teachers and roughly a third of family providers reported that they or someone in their household were enrolled in BadgerCare or Medicare, and 14% of providers from both care settings rely on FoodShare benefits.

Benefits also vary widely. Ros Pilarz found that about one in five center-based teachers receive health insurance through their employer; another 12% have no health insurance. For family providers, a quarter purchase their own health insurance plans; about 8% have no health insurance. As for retirement, slightly more than half of centers contribute to their employees’ retirement plans, with just under a quarter of family providers enrolled in some sort of retirement plan.

In some cases, center-based teachers cannot afford to send their own young children to the child care center they work on their income. That is what Harriman experienced when she worked at a center in Minnesota before coming to start her own in-home center: Footsteps Family Childcare.

“I was like, well, this is kind of silly to work at a daycare that you can’t... even afford to put your own child in.”

All the while, the workers in this sector are well educated. A lot of the education is required for the health, safety, and development of the children in their care, though some have additional education as well. Much of the education also must be continued annually too.

Heather Harriman reads to twins at her in-home child care center in Wisconsin Rapids. She is...
Heather Harriman reads to twins at her in-home child care center in Wisconsin Rapids. She is working on gaining higher education to make her care for these kids even better.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

“Even just like understanding brain development, like when I started when I was 17, what they know what they knew then and what they know now show so different,” Harriman explained.

She is working on getting higher education to improve the care she provides to the kids in her care, as unlike in some other fields, more education does not often lead to career advancement or higher pay, especially for someone running their own in-home center. However, the costs associated with obtaining that degree paired with her modest income, along with the time commitment between running her center and her studies make getting that degree a slow process.

“There is no one getting rich in childcare,” Kelly Matthews with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association stated. She explained that the business model for child care, whether in-home or in centers, is not like a typical business.

“They can’t just take more kids, right? It doesn’t work that way, whereas (in) manufacturing you might be able to ramp up your production in order to lower your costs. It doesn’t work. That’s not the model of child care.”

That is due to the ratios of teachers to children, which she said are in place for the health, safety, and development of children. A child under the age of 2 counts for two older-child spots. So, it is more cost-effective for providers to take children over the age of 2. The ratios are different for family providers and group centers.

Maximum number of children in family child care per provider
Maximum number of children in family child care per provider(Wisconsin Department of Children and Families)
Maximum group size and minimum number of child care workers in group child care centers
Maximum group size and minimum number of child care workers in group child care centers(Wisconsin Department of Children and Families)

These ratios are regulated by each child’s birthdate, which can make it tricky when families want to keep their children at the same provider -- which is what most providers want too -- as many families have multiple children who fall between the ages of 0-2 at a time. It also makes it challenging for providers to tell families on waitlists when they will be able to fit them in, as most providers prioritize families who are already in their care.

“It is a giant puzzle of birthdays and transitions,” Stephanie Daniels, the director of the Aspirus Weston YMCA said. “If you’re planning on having kids, you should just let me know so I can start penning them in for 2024.”

Lead teacher, Brittany Frahm teaches alongside her mother, Kathy Frahm at the Weston YMCA, as...
Lead teacher, Brittany Frahm teaches alongside her mother, Kathy Frahm at the Weston YMCA, as they both have a love for early childhood education and children.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

The Weston and Wausau YMCA child care centers make up one of the largest, if not the largest provider of child care in Marathon County with nearly 500 slots for kids between the two locations. Since they do more than just provide child care, Daniels said they are able to have more funding streams than most providers who strictly provide child care. It allows them to offer more benefits to staff and families and help to keep generations of staff working there, like the Frahm mother-daughter duo.

It also makes increasing child care rates on families a little less painful, with Daniels saying that parents express a willingness to pay more for quality care and staff.

“The turnover is kind of high right now, but I would say heading into summer I feel really good about where we’re at, but again, that just could change.”

She said they are competing with other industries entirely, like retail or manufacturing that can pay better and do not necessarily require prior education. That is even as the Y pays their teachers a little more than other providers in the area, often causing staff from other centers or in-home settings, which only shifts the problem of a shortage in available child care spots from one area to another.

“As a community, we just, every child care center needs to pay more and figure out a way to make this profession something that everybody, you know, that they want to do, not just jump from center to center because they pay more.”

“People have to understand that this is very, very important and if people believe that they’ll do something about it,” Harriman concluded.

correction: A broadcasted version of this story showed incorrect math as a provider calculated the cost of care. That video has since been edited, removing that incorrect information, and the correct calculations are reflected in the published article.

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