When his wife, Amanda Gamester, was just six weeks pregnant, Colby Gamester made a call to Little Blessings Child Care Center in Portsmouth seeking a spot for their soon-to-be-born child. Almost a year later, the couple received the good news they were off the waitlist and had a place for their baby.
Colby Gamester remembers the team at Little Blessings and other child care centers were the first people they told about the pregnancy, even before his parents.
Gamester is now the father of Remy, 5, who previously attended Little Blessings as well as Laney, a 2-year-old daughter who still attends the center.
“I almost feel like I got ahead of the waitlist, because I called so early,” he said.
A year may seem like a long time to wait for child care, a necessity for many working families with young children. But the Gamesters were fortunate. Many child care centers in New Hampshire have waitlists spanning multiple years.
The reasons behind the waitlists are part of a vicious cycle. Workers are leaving child care centers due to low pay. In turn, the centers are not be able to take in as many children because they lack staff and can't meet the required teacher-child ratios. In an attempt to solve this, child care centers raise their rates so they can pay workers a higher wage and retain them. However, this results in some families having trouble affording child care. And the cycle continues.
“The working family can't pay any more. But the early childhood teacher can't work for any less,” said Johanna Booth-Miner, the director and owner of Live & Learn Early Learning Center in Lee.
Live & Learn's waitlist is four years.
“We just let in for the fall a 4-year-old that had been on our waitlist since the child was in utero,” Booth-Miner said.
Difficulty hiring, keeping child care workers
Finding staff is a persistent challenge.
“We've had an ad out for four years and seven months looking for an early childhood teacher to join our pre-K classroom," Booth-Miner said. "We have yet to hire a person. I actually had to apply to sponsor an early childhood teacher from France to get someone qualified to come in.”
The consequences of low pay are felt by families and center owners.
Even though the licensed capacity of child care centers has increased from 38 children to 59 children between 2001 and 2021, according to nhchilddata.org, many child care centers cannot take the number of children they are licensed to accept due to not having enough workers to meet teacher-child ratio regulations. NHchilddata.org is a website created by nonprofit Endowment for Health in Concord, which was awarded a grant to create a New Hampshire online child wellbeing data hub.
Shannon Tremblay, director of Little Blessings Child Care Center, is currently operating at 50% capacity. The Portsmouth center is licensed to take in 71 kids, but was averaging about 37 kids a day in August, the maximum capacity for the amount of staff it employs.
“Come September, when our college kiddos leave and our high school girls leave, you know, we're back to square one,” said Tremblay. "And we have right now five qualified teachers and five classrooms, which is not ideal."
It's not a new problem.
“Historically, there's no pay in child care," Tremblay said. "We're competing with fast food restaurants for workers that have essentially the same pay rate that we can provide. And we can't increase costs, because if we increase wages, most of our money, our revenue, comes from tuition, so that falls on the parents' laps.
So child care workers remain stuck with low pay, as explained by Lisa Ranfos, PhD, an associate professor in the Human Development & Family Studies program at the University of New Hampshire.
“A high percentage of people working in this field are at or below the poverty line. That is unacceptable. We have to do better for people to whom we are entrusting young children,” said Ranfos, who is also director of UNH's Child Study and Development Center.
According to nhchilddata.org, the average pay of the state's child care workers annually, is $24,490. This number decreased from 2019 to 2021 and isn’t even half the average annual income in New Hampshire, which is $59,270.
Ranfos said pay is so low in the child care field some workers can’t afford to have their own kids attend the center where they work.
The UNH child care center pays full-time teachers well above average, ranging between $44,000 and $55,000, depending on years of service. Part-time support staff and students make between $11 and $15 per hour. Part-time degree teachers make $20 per hour.
Little Blessings pays its staff between $15 and $19 per hour.
"This is average if not higher than some centers but way less than public schools. Unlike public schools, we offer very limited benefits and our teachers have no pension," Tremblay said. "We have staff members who have been working here for 25 years who are making this much, sadly."
Still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic
Live & Learn in Lee had to close some classrooms for six months amid the coronavirus pandemic and some teachers didn’t come back for a year and a half. Booth-Minor said it's difficult to ask people to work in a “petri dish."
“We're dealing with a human commodity. So, it's not like we can shut down a production line,” she said. However, some centers have had to do just that.
According to nhchilddata.org, licensed child care programs in the state have declined by 37% over the last 20 years with 442 programs having closed between 2001 and 2021.
Booth-Miner said most child care centers shut down their infant classrooms because they are the most expensive to run, requiring the highest number of personnel. The legal ratio in New Hampshire is four children to one caregiver for children six weeks to one year old.
“Infants and toddlers, you really run as a service to the community. They are not profitable. Rarely do they break even, those classrooms,” she said. “A lot of centers close their infant and toddler classrooms in order to survive as a business. And then when they couldn't find teachers, or they couldn't make their budget work, they ended up closing permanently."
Gamester emphasized the importance of the infant room in child care centers, describing them as the “feeder” for the entire program.
“The more staff you have in the baby room, the more the kids will stay through toddler, (and preschool 1, 2 and 3),” he said.
Booth-Minor said she knows of four centers that recently had to close. This led to longer waitlists for centers that remain open.
“We began to get calls. We had no space,” said Booth-Miner.
Putting further stress on child care centers in the Seacoast, this summer 47 families using the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s child care center were removed from the program due to a U.S. Department of Defense order. The Navy notified the families in mid-June, giving them 45 days of notice.
Home-based child care as an alternative
Waitlists, lack of affordability and centers closing have forced families to look for alternatives.
The majority of cities and counties across New Hampshire have below median access to child care, according to information compiled into an interactive map by the Early Childhood Initiative at the College of Health and Human Services at UNH. While there are some places that have above median access, there are only six cities that have high access. Fifteen municipalities have no access at all.
“Families don't have a choice; they have to take whatever's available. And sometimes that's an OK program. Sometimes that's a family friend or neighbor. Sometimes it's a grandparent,” said Ranfos.
These alternatives include small, family-run centers in private residences.
Lisa Doyon operates Lisa’s Child Care at her home in Manchester. She has worked in the child care industry for 25 years and is a licensed provider. She is also a part of the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program, which has guidelines to make sure that nutritious meals are being served throughout the day.
However, according to Doyon, many family day cares have not received the training and lack the qualifications to properly run home-based programs.
“I worry about if they're first aid and CPR-certified. I mean, it only takes one child to choke on a grape and then not know how to proceed with CPR,” said Doyon.
Booth-Miner echoed these concerns, saying unlicensed child care services can be risky not just for safety reasons, but also because they are not always enriching environments. This can result in kids needing additional services when they start public school.
“We are held to be true family child care facilities, are licensed, and we are held to a higher standard for the benefit of the children's safety and their health,” Doyon said about her center and others that run legitimately.
Doyon is licensed to accept only six children at a time and has a waitlist of 30 people.
Other factors that impact families looking for child care
Another hurdle for new parents is many child care centers give priority to the younger siblings of children who are already enrolled with them. This is helpful for parents who already have one child attending, but for others, it makes the wait even longer.
Todd Eiseman was lucky to get a spot for his 3-year old son at Little Blessings by the time he was born, after being on its waitlist for a year, beginning when his son was still in utero. They currently live in Durham and he has been trying to switch to a day care center closer to them since his son was 1, but has been on waitlists for two and a half years.
Casey Hebert, a mother whose son attends Little Blessings, was able to secure him a spot faster than others because his older brother had previously attended.
Hebert works in massage and esthetics. She said many of her clients who are parents of young children say they did not anticipate how hard it would be to find child care and didn't start early enough to get on a waiting list.
She also knows people who work at other centers who have told her about their difficulties getting time off from work because of the lack of personnel. “They can't get the same amount of time off that they used to,” she said.
Ranfos added another issue is lack of personnel with experience to care for children who have behavioral differences, which leads to young children being told they can no longer attend a child care center.
“I really feel that all behavior is communication in some way. They're needing something, they're lacking something. It's our job, to understand what that looks like, and how to create an environment that allows a child to be successful,” she said.
She added that this might mean children will need occupational therapy or speech therapy, or similar supportive measures.
“All children have unique needs. And I think if we truly created a workforce that was educated with the skills and competencies, we could really make a difference for young kids," Ranfos said.
How much does child care cost?
Beyond waitlists and workforce shortages, families have found it harder to afford child care as tuition rates rise to retain workers.
Ranfos said her son and daughter-in-law spend 30% of their income on child care.
According to nhchilddata.org, the annual cost of infant care in New Hampshire averages $13,260. That's $255 a week. The tuition rate decreases as children age through program with 4- to 5-year-olds averaging $10,660 annually. That's $205 a week.
The UNH child care center uses a sliding scale based on annual income. For families earning above $90,000, infant care annually is $16,110.49; toddler care, $15,084.34; preschool 1, $13,237.29; and preschool 2, $11,903.39.
For families who earn less than $50,000 annually, the annual cost of child care for infants is $9,666.29; for toddlers, $9,050.61; for preschool 1, $7,942.37; and preschool 2 is $7,142.04.
At Little Blessings, the weekly cost of full-time infant care for five days a week is $355. The price declines as the child progresses through Toddler, Preschool 1 and Preschool 2, with Preschool 3 classes at the lowest rate of $299.
New Hampshire state Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, who has two young children and has pushed for legislation in child care, said waitlists can be expensive, too, because it costs money to be on them, and most families will put their name on multiple waitlists. He said each one costs $50 to $75.
He added that eventually families get into a center, but it may not always be the most convenient one. His own children attended a child care center in Rochester, even though they live in Dover, because that was the center they could afford and it had space.
“Bottom line, if we could fund early childhood, truly, and allow families to have access to high quality care, we could change the trajectory for young children,” Ranfos said.
State and federal funding has helped
There have been some measures taken by the state to help support the child care industry in New Hampshire.
The federally-funded Payroll Protection Plan was especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, Booth-Miner said.
In addition, centers have been aided by the Child Development Block Grant money, which provided funds for retention and recruitment of early childhood teachers.
Ranfos said the UNH child care center was lucky enough not to have to raise prices since the pandemic due to COVID-19 relief money such as the American Rescue Plan Act funds and others received by the university. Many UNH students assist at the center as part of their coursework.
However, most other programs do not have these university resources.
“I'm all for a business tax in the state of New Hampshire that is directly funneled to early childhood, and I'm a business that would have to pay. I think that we've got to have our community start taking care of our children,” said Booth-Miner.
Ranfos feels the solution is to work toward funding child care programs.
“When we think about our public education, that is a funded program, that is a funded system that we have created to serve children, K-12, to get them prepared for life or for the workforce. If we were to back that up and truly fund early childhood, we could have high quality all over the place," she said.
There has been some state legislative action, too.
On June 8, an amended version of Senate Bill 466 sponsored by Sen. Becky Whitley passed. The goal of the original bill was to create a fund to provide support and benefits to the workforce. The version that passed requires the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to develop a rigorous plan to provide compensation, supports and benefits to boost the child care workforce.
As a result of this bill, the New Hampshire DHHS has recently created the Child Care Strengthening Plan to achieve the legislation's goals. The plan is being funded through $29 million in American Rescue Plan discretionary funds.
Some of the short-term initiatives of the plan include building up high school programs and partnerships with the Department of Education and allowing current child care providers to pursue higher education while working through the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) initiative. The plan will also provide grants that will help with start-up costs, maintenance of facilities, and expanding classrooms and outdoor areas as well as fostering partnerships with New Hampshire Employment Security to provide access to training programs, professional development and continuing education.
“This issue is deeply personal for me and for my family, for my constituents. I ran for office because I thought it was incredibly important to have the voice of a working parent in the Senate,” said Whitley, who has an 8-year-old child.
How parents awaiting child care can enrich children's experiences
Kimberly Nesbitt, associate professor in the Human Development and Family Studies program at UNH and part of the Early Childhood Initiative, said parents on waitlists can find ways to help their children learn and grow in a home setting.
The most important thing, she said, is to communicate with them and allow them agency to decide what it is they want to learn.
For example, if a child picks up a piece of fruit at the grocery store, parents can ask them what color it is, talk about what it is used for, or what shape it is. Or, if they have an empty box at home, instead of putting it directly in the recycling, they can let the child get creative with it and find things in the house to glue on it, or draw a picture on it, for example.
Another great way to introduce new words and concepts is through reading, she added. Just making experiences meaningful and joyful is enough.
“It's just about finding small ways, and these don't have to be big,” Nesbitt said. “Just kind of follow their lead and know that you're doing good.”
“It shouldn't be a barrier,” Ranfos said about waitlists and the financial obligations of child care. “Every child deserves a wonderful start with people who understand child development and understand the impact that we have on children.”
This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative, as part of its race and equity initiative. It was edited by Seacoast Media, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
Pictured: CC Memphis: Students dance around in the playroom at Little Blessings Child Care Center in Portsmouth Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. (photo by Olivia Falcigno)