(First published in the October 31, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Marathon County has lost half of its child care providers in the past eight years. That’s a big problem.
Children play at the Woodson YMCA downtown Wausau branch. The YMCA added 50 new spots for child care after its recent remodel, and they filled up almost instantly, says Communications Director Carrie Hutton.
Kalli Yaklyvich and her husband moved to Wausau from the Minneapolis area, and Upper Michigan before that, five years ago. So when their first child, Austin, was born in 2018, she didn’t have nearby relatives to help with daycare after she would return to work.
As a new mother in her early 30s, she’d heard there were waiting lists for child care in Wausau, especially for infants. She didn’t realize at the time how long those waiting lists were. She started touring daycare centers during her maternity leave, which was ending that June. She found out she couldn’t get a spot until November.
Yaklyvich lucked out. Her mother was able to take a few months off of work to help watch Austin until August. Plus, because she planned to return work full time and needed full time daycare, they got moved up the wait list. Yaklyvich got a spot in August last year, just in time as her mother returned to the U.P.
Not everyone is that fortunate, and Yaklyvich knows it, as a human resources business advisor at Wipfli accounting firm, and an employee recruiter in the past. She has seen numerous employees, mostly women, leave the workforce because they’re unable to find suitable child care. Local waiting lists are so long some experts suggest mothers start looking for child care options the moment they find out they’re pregnant.
Finding child care has always been a challenge, but it’s a dire problem now in the area. In the past eight years, Marathon County has lost half of its child care providers, according to estimates from the local non-profit agency Childcaring.
It’s a staggering statistic that has people concerned about families and the local workforce. Companies in central Wisconsin, and across the U.S., already are struggling to find people to fill jobs. Now couple that with employees leaving the workforce because they either can’t find or afford child care.
The situation is so dire that the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, based at the UW-Stevens Point Wausau campus, is now conducting a survey to collect data about family-friendly practices in the workplace, as well as what employees say they need in that area. Local business leaders say that information will inform a lot of what happens in the next several years around child care and economic development.
The important business of babies
Childcaring formed in 2014, as a conglomeration of several agencies in central Wisconsin communities. It recently opened a new location in the Mosinee business park area near Central Wisconsin Airport. The organization works with child care providers to help develop and navigate regulations; and it helps parents find care for their children, plus financial assistance.
That agency’s job has become more challenging. Losing roughly half of its childcare providers means there are about 1,000 fewer child care “slots” in the area, says Childcaring Executive Director Kelly Borchardt.
Most of child care providers that disappeared were family-based set ups run out of the providers’ homes, says Assistant Director Micki Krueger. These providers by legal definition, take in eight or fewer children. Child care providers with nine or more children are considered group centers, and have different requirements, including a standalone facility.
There’s a few reasons those family providers are disappearing, Borchardt says. Burnout is common. There’s an enormous amount of regulations providers must follow, which is stressful in a one-person operation.
Child care is now evaluated under the YoungStar banner. YoungStar was created in the state’s Department of Children and Families in 2010 to better standardize the child care profession, and to give parents a rating system to evaluate child care.
Complaints at the time of its formation were that it favored larger providers in some of its criteria. Points were awarded for things such has having someone with a masters degree on staff — something an operation run out of someone’s home isn’t likely to have. Other points referred to pay and training for staff.
Child care providers are awarded a star rating based on the criteria laid out by YoungStar, with five stars being the highest. The system has evolved since then, Borchardt says. YoungStar has been tweaked after soliciting and getting feedback from providers and parents. “However, it’s not a perfect system.”
Katie Stieber of Marshfield had no intention of starting a daycare center. She just wanted a nice place where her child would be well cared for, with good early-childhood education and development.
But the staff where she was taking her son Jackson didn’t seem to interact much with him, and he seemed mostly left alone when she would visit the center, no matter the time of day. She thought about other options, but the pickings were slim. Most places have waiting lists upwards of a year. And she, like plenty of other parents she knew, started to wonder if keeping a job was worth it, given the high cost of child care.
There needed to be more options, Stieber says she discussed with her husband, who suggested she create her own center. She has a background in business management, and liked children.
Today, Stieber runs Mama Bears Daycare in Marshfield. Stieber started the business last December, and has 36 children under her and her employee’s care, including her son Jackson.
She also discovered the challenges of running a daycare operation. More centers don’t necessarily lead to more care in the community, because there are only so many child care workers to go around. And employees in general seem less reliable. Stieber says people have quit, or not shown up on their first day of work. That’s a challenge, Stieber says, because state regulations are clear about the ratio of children to a single child care provider. She’s had to have parents pick up their children because she couldn’t legally watch them. Some centers, she says, simply operate with illegal ratios at times.
Paying more might attract better, more reliable employees, but that would increase costs to the point of being unaffordable to many parents.
Megan Roberts, 39, started a child care center, Roberts’ Rugrats, in her Weston home in January. The Roberts had adopted a three-year-old, and she learned many of the licensing requirements for foster care were similar to the child care business, so she already was a few steps ahead.
Roberts now cares for seven total children. Three are school aged, one is her own son, and the others are under two years old, notoriously one of the hardest categories to find child care for. The state limits how many infants (under 2 years old) a provider can legally watch.
Roberts currently has a three-star rating — that’s about where she would expect to be, being open for less than a year. She went through all the YoungStar trainings she could, and plans to do more, but doesn’t have the resources to earn a higher rating.
That hasn’t at all affected business. In fact, she originally planned on opening Roberts’ Rugrats in March, but demand was so high she got the business off the ground in January instead. She opened a business page on Facebook and that’s pretty much all it took. She still gets at least two calls per week from parents looking for child care.
Her work days are long. Roberts gets her first child in the door at about 6 a.m., and the last one leaves between 5-5:30 p.m. With a 12-hour work day, time management is a challenge, especially for additional professional training that would add points to her YoungStar rating.
It’s clear to Roberts that there’s a huge local demand for child care, and she hopes to open a larger child care center one day. But that’s a big leap, she says, involving hiring employees and administration.
Family/work calculus is a real thing
Kalli and Nick Yaklyvich, with their son, Austin. “We’re losing talented people, mostly women,” Kalli says. “A lack of child care is not just a family problem, it’s everyone’s problem. It doesn’t just affect new parents, but the community as a whole.”
Wausau area businesses desperate to fill positions experience numerous reasons to potentially lose an employee or candidate. Not being able to find child care, for a parent who wants to work, shouldn’t be one of them.
Eric Giordano and Dr. Corina Norrbom of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service nearly a year ago started surveying employees and employers on family-related work issues. After all, everyone is sure of one thing: There are far fewer child care providers today compared to eight years ago. What they don’t know is how families are responding to that shortage, and what services would help.
If there are 1,000 fewer child care slots, what’s happening to those babies and children? Surely many parents are choosing to stay home, or they’re cobbling together daycare with friends and relatives. And as some child advocates and educators have guessed over the past few years, it’s likely that many children are in less-than-optimal, informal babysitting situations where they’re not getting the social stimuli and language development that an engaged parent or licensed child care provider would provide.
The WIPPS survey will show two things: What family friendly policies Marathon County employers already have in place, and what employees need that they might not be getting. “We don’t have any data, unless we ask,” Norrbom says. “Is there a difference between someone working on the line versus in an office; between different ages, cultures?”
Norrbom also has hosted a series of discussion events called Baby Business, around child care. With the workforce shortage only getting worse, employers are starting to pay attention to the issue. Guest speakers included a Fortune 500 CEO, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
There are groups, including the Marathon County Early Years Coalition of the United Way, working to address the shortage. But the survey will answer the key questions: What do employees want, and what to businesses offer now? And that could be very different compared to elsewhere in Wisconsin or the U.S.
“I think employers are starting to understand that this is a problem,” Norrbom says, “but understanding and talking is way different than action.”
According to the Economic Policy Institute, full-time infant care (under two years old) costs around $12,000 per year, and around $10,000 for a 4-year-old. Then throw in the difficulties that a child care shortage poses — location, time, quality — and it’s easy to see why families would simply choose to have one parent stay at home.
It gets worse when you compare it to other costs. Care for one infant costs about 18.5% of a median family’s salary in Wisconsin ($67,786), and more than an average year of college ($8,475) or housing ($9,994).
Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce CEO Dave Eckmann says the child care issue is critical to the county’s economic success. Eckmann says on-site child care or small business daycare cooperatives are some of the changes likely coming in the next few years.
On-site care seemed to work well at UW-Stevens Point, where Eckmann worked prior to working at the chamber. “We’re in a workforce shortage and child care is getting so expensive, along with a lack of availability, it means people need to stay home with their kids,” Eckmann says. There is a human side of it too. It means families earning less, which could lead to increased stress, poverty and all the issues those bring.
One thing that’s helped Kalli Yaklyvich is more flexible work hours. Wipfli has been good about adjusting hours, Yaklyvich says, which has helped with her day care’s drop off and pick up hours.
Yaklyvich says her family is considering another child, but child care cost and availability will play a large role in that decision and planning. Her mother will likely be retired by the time they have their second child and wants to help with child care part time. But finding other child care part time is difficult. “There are days when I think about how much you’re paying for child care and now seeing my son,” Yaklyvich says. “It’s tough.”
As an HR professional, Yaklyvich says it’s a problem all businesses will need to think about. “We’re losing talented people, mostly women,” Yaklyvich says. “A lack of child care is not just a family problem, it’s everyone’s problem. It doesn’t just affect new parents, but the community as a whole.”