The House and Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a $12 million proposal to strengthen Maine’s child care and early childhood education workforce through enhanced pay and professional development opportunities.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was supported by a wide range of groups and individuals, including Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, childcare providers and other advocates. Fecteau’s office said the bill will help Maine recruit and retain its child care workforce by increasing pay by about $200 per month.

Christelle Inyaya holds Eliel Azanga in the infant room at the Youth and Family Outreach daycare center in Portland this month. A proposed bill would help child care centers recruit and retain staff. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Early childhood educators and day care providers were plagued with workforce challenges even prior to the pandemic, which only made the problems worse. Workers left the low-paying field to make more money at other, less challenging jobs, forcing child care centers to close and leaving parents struggling to find child care so they could return to work.

Supporters of Fecteau’s bill argue that parents are already maxed out on costs and can’t afford tuition increases needed to increase pay for educators and child care staff, forcing some parents to leave the workforce to care for their young children.

Fecteau, who stepped down from the rostrum to deliver his first floor speech while speaker, said that the child care workforce challenge is “at a tipping point.” He said his bill is a “crucial piece of Maine’s economic health,” needed to preserve “the workforce behind the workforce.” He said high quality and affordable child care will not only help parents remain in the workforce but also ensure that children enter school ready to succeed.

Fecteau noted that lawmakers approved a similar program using onetime federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, but that funding will end this fall.

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“The true cost of providing high quality child care with adequate compensation for extremely hardworking teachers is far higher than what working families can afford,” Fecteau said. “Raising parents’ child care fees to pay educators more is not a workable solution. Increased public investment is needed to raise compensation and give all Maine children of working parents an opportunity to access high quality, early education and ensure their kids are prepared for kindergarten.”

Lawmakers agreed. The House passed the bill 130-0 with 17 members absent, only a few hours after the Senate unanimously passed the bill without debate or discussion.

Rep. Amanda Collamore, R-Pittsfield, offered “strong support” for the bill. Collamore said she is a child care educator, but she cannot afford to work in the field because the pay is too low.

“This bill can help keep professionals in the field or maybe encourage them to return if they have left,” Collamore said. “This is an emergency in our state. Child care centers are closing or losing employees because educators can make more at Walmart. I know. Because I’ve done it.”

The bill allocates $100,000 in ongoing funding to the Department of Education to expand early childhood education programs offered by career and technical education centers. It also establishes two new positions within the Department of Health and Human Services’ child care services program – a social services manager and a management analyst.

The bill directs DHHS to develop and implement a system to provide nine months of salary supplements to child care providers and early childhood educators who provide direct services at licensed facilities or as licensed family child care providers. Through June 30, 2023, each provider or educator providing direct services will receive the same stipend. After that, stipends will be offered on a three-tiered system, based on education and experience, to be developed by DHHS.

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Maine’s child care workforce challenges are part of a nationwide trend. 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.

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 child care.”

Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, celebrated the passage pf L.D. 1652 in a written statement Thursday.

“Valuing and compensating the child care workforce may be the most critical part of shoring up a strong child care system, since a stable workforce will increase access to quality early care and education in Maine,” Williams said.

Gov. Mills recommended funding the proposal in her supplemental budget, which is being reviewed by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. The unanimous endorsement from both chambers means the funding portion should not generate much debate among committee members.

In her State of the State address, Mills outlined the administration’s investments in child care. She said the state has invested $120 million in one-time American Rescue Plan funds to help child care centers recover and improve quality, including $200 monthly stipends to more than 6,000 child care workers and $25 million to help renovate, expand or build new child care centers.

“But we also need to do more,” Mills said in February. “Speaker Fecteau has proposed legislation to provide pay increases for child care workers. I support his proposal.”

Mills applauded the strong vote of support in a written statement Thursday.

“I applaud lawmakers for voting unanimously to move this legislation forward,” Mills said Thursday. “I look forward to continuing to do everything we can for working families across our state.”

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