What’s driving Whatcom County’s child care shortage? Here are some of the causes.

Ashley Wright, right, picks up her daughter Tru Davidson from Promise Day Care on Thursday, Aug. 10, in Bellingham.
Ashley Wright, right, picks up her daughter Tru Davidson from Promise Day Care on Thursday, Aug. 10, in Bellingham. evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

The number of licensed child care providers in Whatcom County has dropped by 25 percent in four years, and the ones remaining said a number of factors are behind a shortage that is putting a strain on parents.

“The demand is definitely higher than what we have capacity for,” said Dawne Sheppard, center director and program supervisor for Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham.

In the four years ending in 2016, the number of licensed child care providers in Whatcom County dropped from 147 to 110, according to a report by the Opportunity Council, a nonprofit that is leading the effort to increase the availability of child care here.

When discussing child care shortages and costs, the Opportunity Council and others are referring specifically to licensed child care centers or licensed family child care, which is in a provider’s home.

There’s a third category called “family, friend and neighbor care.” It’s unknown how many Whatcom County parents rely on this informal network.

Regulations, cost add to burden

Licensed providers and advocates said one of the challenges they’re facing is a complex and confusing regulatory system that may be daunting for people who want to become child care providers.

“Getting started in child care is not easy. There’s a lot of regulations to jump through,” Sheppard said.

Her Bellingham center serves 65 families.

Another issue is that commercial real estate is expensive, which when combined with licensing and state regulations, often requires a sizable investment.

Increasingly strict regulations that drive up the cost of providing care also are a factor.

“The licensing requirements continue to get more intense,” said Kim Walbeck, director of Promise Day Care near Bellingham, adding that while that’s for the good of children, it is expensive.

“While it’s really important to have good licensing standards, it could be a barrier,” said Walbeck, who is in the process of buying Promise Day Care from Sherri Benedict, who has owned it for 37 1/2 years and is getting ready to retire.

The center cares for 72 children.

The challenges are such that if Walbeck wanted to open a child care center that wasn’t already running, “it couldn’t happen,” she said.

Walbeck had worked for the Opportunity Council for 27 years. She was working as the Preschool Services Division Manager for the council when she left to acquire Promise Day Care with her husband. They plan to rename it The Seedlings Early Learning Center.

Subsidies help — but not enough

Additional pressures points are increases in the state’s minimum wage and benefits for employees that drive up costs — and the state’s Working Connections Child Care subsidies for low-income parents aren’t keeping up.

“Of course we agree, yes increase minimum wage, yes give them sick pay. But help us supplement that,” Benedict said.

In Whatcom County, 26 percent of licensed providers don’t accept the state subsidy, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington. Statewide, 29 percent don’t.

Those who do make thousands of dollars less.

“The fact that state subsidy rates are so much lower than the market rate puts a huge strain on providers,” said Josh Peck, who researched the availability and cost of child care in Whatcom County for the Opportunity Council.

“When you get to those more rural areas in some parts of the county, where 90 percent of the kids that you’re taking are on subsidies, it makes it tough to stay in business.”

Sheppard estimated her center earned $3,000 to $4,000 less a month for taking in children whose care is subsidized.

She’s had to cut the number of subsidized children she’ll accept by 30 percent.

“That’s just to stay in business,” Sheppard said. “It’s sad.”

Compensation for employees is another challenge.

“Providing care is expensive and it’s a low-paying field,” said Pauli Owen, a licensed provider who cares for 12 children in her home via Pauli’s Playschool, which is in the Bellingham area.

In Whatcom County, a teacher at a child care center earned $26,316 a year, while a director earned $35,964, according to Child Care Aware of Washington. Those were 2014 figures, the latest available from the group, which reports on child care need and availability.

Meanwhile, a family child care provider grossed $41,154.

By comparison, a K-12 teacher made $58,821, according to the report.

“It’s not a money-making business. It really isn’t,” Sheppard said.

Why it matters

Whatcom County parents have said they’re burdened by high costs for child care and wait lists of a year or more.

When they can’t find affordable child care, families find themselves having to live on one income when a parent has to leave their job, if they even have that option. Or parents struggle to juggle the needs of their families and their employers.

It’s not a problem for just Whatcom County parents.

The struggle to find child care has affected careers across America, The Washington Post has reported. In one of its surveys, 75 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers in the U.S. said they switched their jobs, quit or declined opportunities to care for their children.

And the New York Times reported that not being able to afford child care was among the top reasons Americans gave for why they’re not having children, leading to a record low for the nation’s fertility rate.

The effect will ripple out into the broader society and the workplace.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation took a big-picture look at the impact in a June 2017 report titled “Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow: The Business Case for High-Quality Childcare.”

Looking at the current skills gap — 6.9 million people are unemployed but more than two-thirds of employers who need full-time workers can’t find qualified candidates — it argued, essentially, that businesses needed to invest in the future workforce by investing in high-quality child care.

“A broad set of socially and economically valuable skills start developing much earlier in a child’s life than many realize,” the foundation stated. “Eighty percent of a child’s brain development occurs before age three.”

Developmental gaps can begin in children as young as 18 months for kids who don’t have access to high-quality early learning, the foundation argued.

Which is why there’s repeated references to the need for “high-quality child care.” In Washington state, that means putting kids into care that includes curriculum to prepare them for entering kindergarten.

Just 52 percent of Whatcom County children are ready for kindergarten when they enter, according to Child Care Aware of Washington.

And only 38 percent of low-income children in Whatcom County are ready for kindergarten, the agency said.

Help on the way?

There’s work being done, in the short term and the long term, to curb what has been described as a crisis in Whatcom County and elsewhere.

Kids’ World will open another center, this time at Yew Street, in the fall, possibly in September. It will have space for about 110 children, with a focus on infants and toddlers.

The family-owned business has five licensed centers in Bellingham and Ferndale, is the largest and the only provider to expand in many years, co-owner Michael Watters said.

Kids’ World serves 400-plus children and doesn’t cap the number of low-income kids it will accept, he said.

“The children and families most impacted by the lack of available spaces are low-income families,” Watters said. “Their choices have been drastically diminished over the last few years.”

Watters also handles real estate development, rentals and vacation rentals.

“I have other businesses, by necessity, so that I can afford to do this work I love,” he said. “If something doesn’t change, I will not be able to continue at some point.”

The Whatcom County Family YMCA, which now serves up to 250 children between its two existing centers in Bellingham, is trying to expand in the city and also out in the county.

“We’re working on a couple of things. We’re not far enough along on those to get to the specifics but we’re hopeful,” said Bill Ziels, CEO/executive director of the Whatcom Family YMCA.

The nonprofit YMCA doesn’t limit the number of children on subsidies. It has 300 children waiting to get into its centers. The YMCA also focuses on helping families that make a little too much to qualify for a subsidy, but who strain under the cost of paying for child care.

“They really are in a tough spot because nobody’s buying down the cost of their child care,” said David Webster, director of Early Learning and Family Services at the Opportunity Council.

The Opportunity Council also is trying to increase the number of child care providers.

It held a number of information sessions this spring in different parts of Whatcom County to talk to people, and answer questions, about starting a child care business. Seventeen potential child care providers attended. The council’s Small Business Development Program also talked to current providers interested in expanding.

There are ongoing efforts to get Washington state to increase its child care subsidy rates.

Businesses are being encouraged to provide child care vouchers for their employees as a benefit, just like health care and dental care.

“It’s not going to be the whole cost, but it will help offset the cost,” said Robin Lester, CEO of Child Care Aware of Washington.

In a separate effort, the Opportunity Council has added more preschool seats in Bellingham, Blaine and Lynden for this school year by adding 31 slots — bringing the total to 174 — which would help families with low to moderate incomes, the organization said. The state grant also will allow its preschool services to add more hours, which also is important in the effort to get kids ready for kindergarten.

“These preschool slots are one piece of our puzzle for working families in this community. We are working to try to make more days of the year available to families, and longer days,” Webster said.

The city of Bellingham is in the process of adapting its Home Rehab Program to allow those interested in developing in-home child care to be able to use its very low interest loans for qualified projects.

“We know that more child care and early-learning opportunities are needed in this community, and that the cost of these services is a huge challenge for families with young kids who are already struggling under a housing cost burden,” said Samya Lutz, manager of the city’s Housing and Services Program.

“We want to do what we can to help low- and moderate-income homeowners who wish to open in-home childcare businesses within the city and reserve a portion of their slots to low-income families,” Lutz added.

In a similar vein, the Washington state Department of Commerce is offering grants so child care providers can expand and increase the number of children they serve.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Looking for child care?

Here’s what Whatcom County providers recommend parents do in their search for child care.

  • Call the toll free number for Child Care Aware of Northwest Washington at 800-446-1114. Explain what your needs are and the nonprofit will provide a list of licensed child care providers in your community and, should you need it, information on which ones accept subsidies.

  • Take a tour, meet teachers and get a feel for the provider and their space. “Parents need to feel comfortable with the people taking care of their kids,” said Kim Walbeck, director of Promise Day Care near Bellingham.
  • Ask how long employees have been working there. That could be an indication of consistency.
  • Get on their waiting lists — now, even if you don’t think you’ll need it for a while. “If you have the opportunity to plan ahead, then that’s your best route. Do not wait until the last minute,” cautioned Dawne Sheppard, center director and program supervisor for Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham.
  • Washington state has a website where you can check on providers, make sure they’re licensed, and see their ratings. Go to findchildcarewa.org.

Choosing a child care provider can be a tough decision for parents. American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman Dr. Deborah Mulligan gives advice on how to find a safe day care for your child.