About a dozen parents desperate for child care knock on the door of Portland Youth and Family Outreach each week, searching for someone to help take care of their children so they can go to work.

But the nonprofit child care center can’t help them. It’s already at capacity, it’s down a few staff members and those remaining are stretched thin. And its online waitlist is already 100 kids long, according to Michelle Bellanger, program director for Portland Youth and Family.

The child care workforce is in crisis in Maine and across the nation. More than 170 Maine child care centers have shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic. Those that have kept their doors open are struggling to find staff, largely because the pay is so low.

The shortage leaves parents without anywhere to send their children while they go to work, forcing some to leave the workforce. And that has had a ripple effect across the economy, stymying companies desperately trying to hire more workers and thwarting their efforts to make an economic comeback after two years of living through a pandemic.

Political leaders have noticed the crisis. Last week, a legislative committee supported a bill to raise Maine child care worker wages and Gov. Janet Mills proposed $12 million to fund the legislation.

The support from the Legislature’s Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business and the Mills administration is good, said Bellanger, but it also feels like too little, too late.

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“I think it will take something much bigger and much stronger to save the child care industry,” said Bellanger.

Christelle Inyaya holds Eliel Azanga in the infant room at the Youth and Family Outreach day care center in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The child care industry will need to be treated more like K-12 education, with consistent investment from all levels of government and businesses to stay afloat, she said.

Economists agree. In September, a group of 125 economists from across the country signed an open letter saying that the United States must make “comprehensive investments in affordable, quality childcare.”

“For decades, American families and in turn economic growth have been held back by the lack of modern care infrastructure, as working families have been forced to choose between work and caregiving, hampering female labor force participation and reducing productivity,” they wrote.

As it stands, child care is paid for through a combination of tuition payments and state subsidies. But Bellanger said Portland Youth and Family can’t pass on all of what it actually costs to run a child care center to parents. Parents can’t afford it, so staff end up taking on the cost in the form of low pay, she said.

Portland Youth and Family provides child care for poor and otherwise vulnerable families in Portland. Around 65 percent of the center’s families receive some sort of state financial aid. They also prioritize providing child care to foster children and children of teen mothers who need child care so they can finish high school.

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Child care for families who pay out of pocket costs $1,240 a month depending on the child’s age – more for infants, less for pre-kindergarten. For families on state aid, the state pays 75 percent of the average cost of child care in Cumberland County. That comes out to around $1,125 per month. Portland Youth and Family doesn’t ask families receiving state aid to pay the difference.

Teacher Zena Mulele watches as boys play in a preschool class at the Youth and Family Outreach daycare center in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Throughout the state, the cost of child care ranges from $6,500 per year in Aroostook County to $15,756 per year in Cumberland County, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The cost of attending Maine’s community colleges, including tuition, housing, food and supplies, ranges from $10,480 to $14,880 for state residents.

While Portland Youth and Family wants to keep costs down for parents, that decision also puts the nonprofit in a tight spot. Without raising the prices of child care, they can’t afford to pay their staff more, which makes it difficult to retain and recruit staff.

Portland Youth and Family is down two full-time staff members, out of 17, and another teacher plans to leave in the summer to go to graduate school and switch careers.

It has been nearly impossible to hire replacements. For over a month, Bellanger has had job postings up on every website she can think of, including Indeed, Facebook and state and university job boards. But not one person has applied, she said.

The hardest part of being short-staffed is what it does to those working at Portland Youth and Family, said Bellanger.

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“When you have fewer staff, stress goes up, then staff call out, then there’s more stress,” said Bellanger. “It’s a cycle.”

Children laugh and chase after bubbles that teacher Evelyne Kanku is creating during outdoor time at the Youth and Family Outreach day care center in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Starting pay at Portland Youth and Family is $15 an hour with full benefits, including health care and almost four weeks paid time off. For Evelyne Kanku, an early childhood educator, even with significant benefits, the low pay and high stress make it hard for her to stay at the job she loves and has been at for 10 years.

On Friday at Portland Youth and Family one-third of the staff – five out of 15 – were out sick. Kanku had plans to take her class to the playground, but she had to cancel the trip because no one was available to join her. She said that days like Friday, when multiple staff are out, are pretty frequent and always chaotic.

“Sometimes a child needs help and I need to focus on one kid but I can’t give them the attention they need,” she said.

“I hear about other jobs paying more,” Kanku said. “I love this job. My heart tells me to stay, but my mind says I should try to make more money.”

Kanku said having more money in the industry might turn things around.

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“Parents depend on us,” she said. “When they are working we help them balance their needs, but we can’t balance and meet our needs because we don’t have enough staff. Maybe if there was more money in the field more people would work in child care.”

The child care staff shortage, and subsequent child care center closures, is also impacting parents.

Mara Tieken and her husband, Andrew, who did not share his last name, started putting their daughter on child care waitlists around six months before she was born, in June 2020. But by the time winter of 2020 rolled around and Andrew and Mara had maxed out their family leave, they still hadn’t heard back from anyone. Ultimately, they decided Andrew would quit his job to take care of their daughter. And finally, in August 2021, more than a year after their daughter was born, they got their daughter into a day care center.

Mara, a professor at Bates College, studies rural education and was aware of some of the challenges in the child care industry. Still, she was shocked at how hard it was to find child care.

“I can’t tell you how many places we called and just never heard back,” she said. “It’s crazy that you feel like you have to win the lottery to have a place that feels safe for your child.”

Legislation put forward by the state targets some of the many problems facing Maine’s child care industry today. If the bill to support the child care workforce becomes law, it would obligate the state to expand and fund programs to train early childhood educators, grow apprenticeship programs and give bonuses to those already in the field, among other things.

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Portland-based child psychiatrist Jeffrey Barkin said solving the child care workforce crisis is crucial.

“The ages of 0 through 5 are the most critical ages in development,” said Barkin.

It’s in those years children gain language skills and learn bonding skills that set the stage for relationships for the rest of their lives, he said.

The most important thing for development is for children to have stable and consistent people in their lives, explained Barkin.

Teacher Molly Rose listens to a student in a pre-kindergarten class at the Youth and Family Outreach day care center in Portland on Friday. The pre-kindergarten class is run through the Portland Public Schools. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The child care industry gained a lot of attention for being essential during the pandemic. But Bellanger said those who work in the field have known their work is crucial since long before COVID-19 hit.

“The amount of growth and development that happens in birth through 5 impacts kids for the rest of their lives,” said Bellanger. “If you don’t have a strong 0 through 5 experience, it’s hard to course-correct.”

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Bellanger said it’s not just academic skills they provide, but life skills – things like sharing, self-soothing and learning how to ask for help.

The systemic problems present in the child care industry are not new, said Bellanger, but the pandemic greatly exacerbated them.

“There were already cracks in the child care industry,” she said. “But the pandemic completely broke the foundation.”

Maine has seen a 19 percent decline in child care professionals since 2019, according to a report by the Maine chapter of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America, which recently called on state leaders to support Gov. Mills’ proposed $12 million to bolster the child care industry.

The national labor shortage has highlighted the downstream effects of scarce, high-priced child care.

Without affordable child care, parents are unable to go to work and earn a wage, since the child care industry, experts point out, is the workforce behind the workforce.

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Participation in the United States labor force dropped significantly during the pandemic, from 63.3 percent in January 2020 to 62.3 percent last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to roughly 2.5 million fewer people working.

And for nearly one in three women who lost their jobs in the pandemic, the primary reason they haven’t returned to work is because they need to care for children or other family members, according to a small Chamber of Commerce survey.

Bellanger said the work the child care industry does to prop of the entire economy has always been clear to her. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard for her to turn down the dozen people who come to the door of Portland Youth and Family every week.

“It’s heartbreaking to turn them away knowing that they need child care to show up for work and if they don’t show up to work on Monday they can’t pay for gas, can’t feed their families,” she said.

She feels the same way when a child gets COVID and she has to tell a parent they need to quarantine and that their child can’t come to day care for 10 days.

“The thing is,” Bellanger said, “no one gets to go to work if we don’t go to work.”

Note: This article was updated Monday, March 14 to correct a reference to the cost of attending community college. The cost includes tuition and other expenses.

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