A typical workday for Whitney Aschenwald begins with a drive north from Bigfork to Kalispell, where she drops off each of her two young children in separate child care centers.
After spending the day working as a writer, Aschenwald returns to both establishments to pick up each child – one nearly 3 years old, the other nearly 5 months old.
It’s a lot of shuffling, but Aschenwald is grateful that she got the two childcare spots. She feels lucky with the many local families struggling to find adequate child care.
“Now I have two dumps and two pickups from each daycare, each morning and evening,” Aschenwald said. “But I think our family is really lucky compared to a lot.”
Renee Harkins, another working mom of two, shares Aschenwald’s gratitude.
“We were very lucky at the end of the day,” Harkins said. She spent eight months on numerous waiting lists before finding places for her daughters in two different daycare centers.
He came over in the case of his youngest daughter, now 3 months old. Harkins said she finally heard about an infant care opening just a week before the birth of her second child.
“Right now there isn’t a lot available,” said Collette Box, owner and operator of the Discovery Developmental Center on Glenwood Drive in Kalispell. She has worked as an early childhood advocate for 30 years.
Box said the valley’s child care system was inadequate due to a lack of public investment in resources. Facilities are understaffed and underfunded, caregivers are underpaid, and families cannot afford to do much, but wait and hope that their child will find a place in a good facility.
Discovery charges $ 950 per month for one child to attend daycare. Box said it would be impossible to raise the rate higher because most families simply couldn’t afford it.
But that, she says, also means she can’t pay her entry-level employees more than $ 10 an hour, even if their position requires them to have a bachelor’s degree.
This makes childcare an unappealing area for new workers, creating staff shortages and ultimately “damaging the children,” Box said.
COVID-19 the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. At a time when disrupted workplaces forced many more parents to seek child care, centers have been forced to limit capacity or shut down entirely due to concerns about the virus.
Among the local facilities that recently closed was the early childhood center at Flathead Valley Community College, where Bigfork resident Aschenwald used to take her toddler.
For four months, Aschenwald searched for a replacement while his extended family helped watch his son. Without their help, Aschenwald said she would have had to take time off work to care for him.
“Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to [keep working]”she said of her family’s contributions.” I know a lot of people in the area don’t have that luxury. “
His experience shows the greater effects of the shortage of child care services.
Box noted that the problem often goes unnoticed by people without small children, but its ramifications are felt throughout the community.
AS MUCH Businesses in Montana and across the country say they are struggling to hire workers, Governor Greg Gianforte recently ended federal pandemic unemployment benefits and began offering bonuses of $ 1,200 to unemployed Montanans who are returning to the labor market.
But there haven’t been any major new investments in Montana’s child care system, although there is plenty of research indicating the impact this can have on the state’s economy.
“About 40% of companies said the shortage was having an impact on their ability to recruit or retain skilled workers,” said an investigation report from November 2020 from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
“Inadequate child care costs Montana businesses nearly $ 55 million a year,” it says. a September 2020 investigation report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.
With better access to child care services statewide, Montana’s economy would save about $ 232 million per year, according to the UM report.
UM researchers surveyed more than 400 Montana households with children under the age of 6. They found that 12% of respondents quit their jobs the previous year because they could not meet their child care needs. Another 15% had to switch from full-time to part-time work for the same reason.
The UM report noted that inadequate childcare disproportionately affects women and female-dominated career fields, contributing to labor shortages in the childcare sector. .
PARENTS LOVE Aschenwald and Harkins are still waiting for solutions.
Earlier this month, Gianforte vetoed bill 624, who is said to have created a task force to analyze the shortcomings of child care services in Montana.
“Montana has never had more resources available to increase access and invest in child care, ultimately reducing a major barrier to re-entry into the workforce,” Gianforte wrote in its veto note.
He cited federal pandemic relief funding and his recent decision on unemployment benefits as proof of the abundant resources available to stimulate the state’s economy. A stronger global economy, argued Gianforte, would spill over into the child care sector.
The scrapped task force joins many other official efforts to improve childcare services that have been slaughtered at local and state levels.
The Republican-controlled legislature this year nixed bills proposing the creation of a subsidy program for childcare providers and the expansion of eligibility for the childcare scholarship program. of State. He also cut funding for the state health department’s Stars to Quality program. In an email, Box said the old program, which offered incentives to providers, “has improved the quality of programs over the past 10 years.”
Box tries to keep her hopes up for the future of child care in Flathead Valley, but she’s not optimistic about the Gianforte administration’s approach. She said child care deserved to be a funding priority.
“It will take a huge, huge, billion dollar investment in child care to make the system work for families,” she said.
At a recent economic conference in Kalispell, she warned that a continued lack of investment could result in “very sad children and families.”
Journalist Bret Anne Serbin can be reached at 406-758-4459 or [email protected]