One of the starkest challenges during the pandemic has been the lack of child care for working parents.  As Portland business leaders, child care is one of our top concerns as we work to recruit and retain workers.  Simply put: if parents do not have child care, they cannot go to work.

The challenges faced by Maine’s child care workforce are also the focus of a new Council for a Strong America research report, “Child Care Providers: The Workforce Behind the Workforce in Maine.”

The lack of child care is now a crisis for the business community in our state.

Findings from a Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce survey of its business members, both small and large, illustrate the crisis in real time:

The survey found that 61 percent of respondents report that their employees are having trouble finding child care, a problem that is undermining their ability to recover financially from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of the chamber’s members said that their employees experience unplanned work absences due to a lack of child care, and nearly half say that the lack of child care has caused issues when it comes to employee retention.

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More than affordability or location, 95 percent of the chamber’s members stated that the biggest challenge with child care is the fact that, in many places, there just aren’t enough providers.

The pandemic temporarily closed many of Maine’s child care programs, and 141 of those have closed permanently. For the providers that were lucky enough to reopen, many are operating at reduced capacity due to staff shortages.

Moreover, Maine has experienced a 19-percent decrease in its number of child care workers since 2019.

As a result, many parents, especially mothers, have been forced to reduce their work hours, or leave the workforce entirely.

This is a dire issue. Most Maine parents are in the workforce and need child care. There are approximately 77,000 children under age 6 in Maine, and 71 percent of these children have all available parents in the workforce. These parents should not have to choose between staying in the workforce or staying home because there is no one to care for their children. Unfortunately, with the current lack of child care availability, many are forced to make such a choice.

Beyond the negative effects on individual workers, problems with child care inflict a huge economic toll. The lack of child care for infants and toddlers alone costs our nation $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue, with the estimate for Maine being $180 million per year in losses

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Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, many child care programs had difficulties finding qualified providers to hire.

The fundamental problem with attracting and retaining qualified workers in the child care sector is low wages.  In Maine, the annual mean wage for child care teachers is about $29,000, compared to about $38,000 for pre-K teachers, and about $54,000 for kindergarten teachers. Many child care providers have cited low compensation as a main reason for poor staff retention.

It’s also important to point out that child care workers often work 10-hour days, 50-52 weeks a year, and their employers frequently cannot afford to offer them health care and other benefits. We must do more for our child care providers to give hard-working parents in Maine the access to high-quality child care that they need to ensure their children are properly educated and looked after. For all of these reasons, we ask Maine policymakers to approve the proposed $12 million in wage supplements for child care workers in the pending state supplemental budget.

For Maine to recover financially from the pandemic and continue to grow economically, it’s clear that we need to ensure that working parents have access to high-quality, affordable child care. To do so, we have to build up Maine’s child care workforce.  If we don’t make this a reality, we will continue to see employers and employees struggle.


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