Ivan and Anne Soto
Ivan Soto, left, with wife Anne, right, and children Maya, 5, and Mateo, 2, in their Biddeford backyard on Oct. 31. The Sotos both work in child care and get an employee discount, but still have trouble paying for the service. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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You wouldn’t expect Ivan and Anne Soto, a husband and wife who work at The Children’s Center on Stevens Avenue in Portland, to have to worry about child care.

The Children’s Center provides a 50 percent employee discount – generous compared with many other child care centers that can only offer 10 or 15 percent if anything at all. With that discount, the Sotos were essentially paying to have two children in day care for the price of one.

But that’s a rate the Biddeford family still couldn’t afford. Even with that discount, they still struggled to pay for heat in the winter.

Annmarie Marshall
Annmarie Marshall, director of MaineLy Childcare in South Portland, in a sandbox on the center’s playground on Oct. 28. She said illness policies required during the coronavirus pandemic are straining providers and parents. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The Sotos are one example of a broken child care system that poses problems not only for families with small children who desperately need the service and can barely afford it, but also for child care providers and their employees.

“It can be demoralizing to spend your days taking care of other children while struggling to pay for your own child care,” Soto said. 

With low salaries for employees (the average is $12.39 an hour for a child care worker in Maine, according to the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children) the industry is failing its staff, who often aren’t compensated well enough to afford the care, and failing its families, who can’t afford child care costs that often consume more than a typical week’s paycheck.

Nationally, the average cost of care per child is about $10,000 a year, or about 13 percent of an average family’s income, according to a September report from the Treasury Department. In Maine in 2020, the average cost of child care was $691 per month and $787 for infants, or about 17 percent of the average Maine citizens’ yearly income, according to Procare, a child care software company based in Denver, Colorado.

Although it’s expensive, the Sotos always had spots for their children at The Children’s Center. The same can’t be said for families who are desperately searching for a place to care for their kids while parents are at work. The Children’s Center, for example, has a waitlist through September 2022; Soto said parents returning to on-site work after working at home or not working during the pandemic are shocked they can’t find coverage.

The challenge for families

When Heather Provencher, originally from Saco, moved back to Maine in June with her husband Francisco Lopez, she said someone told her securing child care here is “by far the worst and most stressful part of parenting.”

They would soon experience it themselves in the search to find child care for their daughter.

Provencher and Lopez moved to Portland from Long Beach, California, for Lopez’s job. They started to look for child care in Portland in March, when they knew they would be moving. Seventeen different options and seven months later, they found a place for their daughter in mid-October at Back Cove School, an independent day care on Ocean Avenue.

MaineLy Childcare
The front entrance of MaineLy Childcare in South Portland, which has been operating at half capacity since March 2020. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

While they searched for a center, they split the cost of a nanny with another family and spent $1,840 a month, which would’ve cost almost $5,000 more than a center over a six-month period. Now they’re paying $1,025 a month for the one they found; if they were still searching, they’d still be paying for the nanny at great cost to their financial health, Provencher said. 

She said she and Lopez are grateful to have found child care and for their ability to have taken time off from work when necessary to look after their daughter. But Provencher acknowledged they are fortunate.

“My relief is coupled with a heavy heart about how many other families don’t have what we found,” she said. 

Their search was made even more difficult because they were set on finding a place that mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for its staff. They were only able to find three in Portland.

One provider told Provencher that she wished she could require the vaccine, but couldn’t risk losing staff over it. She feared that if she did, she wouldn’t be able to hire replacements.

Staffing in child care centers has become more of a problem than ever during the pandemic. More than half of the child care centers that participated in a Maine Association for the Education of Young Children survey from this spring responded that being understaffed is one of their greatest challenges over the last year.

Provencher said she and Lopez initially picked a center in April and even put a payment down, but it was completely understaffed for handling more than 20 new children. She helped for three hours because she felt so bad, she said, but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable leaving her daughter at a center that was so stretched for employees.

The Children's Center
The Children’s Center on Stevens Avenue in Portland. Anne and Ivan Soto both work there, but the cost of child care remains a challenge for them. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Because of staffing issues, many child care centers can’t open up more spots for families who need them. Annmarie Marshall, director of MaineLy Childcare on Harding Street in South Portland, said they’re operating at half capacity: Nine employees and 35 children compared to the 18 employees and more than 70 children before March 2020.

For the last year, MaineLy was unable to provide consistent lunch breaks for staff and continuously had to deny time-off requests because of the lack of coverage. The center reduced its schedule to four days a week with the staff working 10-hour shifts.

“It’s just a dying industry,” Marshall said. “No one can find anyone to work (in child care) anymore.”

MaineLy has had an unfilled job opening for more than a year, and Marshall said she assumes pay is the reason – $14 an hour in this case. But she said centers that are offering $18, $19, or even $20 an hour haven’t been able to hire people either.

“You can flip burgers for $15 an hour with all the benefits, or you can come here, expose yourself to germs for $14, plus pay for your own health insurance,” Marshall said.

Due to required state ratios, child care centers need to have a certain amount of staff per group of children. In Maine, each employee can’t be responsible for more than 10 3-year-olds at a time.

That means that the strict illness policies required as a result of COVID-19 put even more strain on staff and parents.

Marshall said they need the illness policy to keep children and staff safe, but a staff member missing work means they typically have to close down an entire classroom. 

And when an employee has symptoms of a cold or illness and they can’t work, and there’s no way to accommodate the children the teacher would have been caring for, that means more children have to stay home and more parents can’t go to work.

Similarly, children showing symptoms of cold or other illnesses have to stay home, meaning frustration for parents when their providers have no choice but to turn their children away. If they have a fever and at least one other symptom, students typically can’t return until they produce a negative COVID-19 test or a doctor’s note saying they didn’t need one. 

Meanwhile, parents are forced to pay the same rate regardless of whether their child was able to attend on any given day. Centers like MaineLy wouldn’t be able to stay in business if they didn’t charge for days that children miss.

“It’s a full circle of frustration,” Marshall said.

Call for change

A potential solution to help fix the child care crisis may lie within the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan.

President Joe Biden’s proposed changes to the child care system would offer subsidies to child care centers and require them to pay higher staff salaries. It would also cap families’ child care costs at 7 percent of their income.

Marshall has been in child care for 18 years, and said the industry is in the worst shape it’s ever been. She believes that people caring for children should be treated well, and should be able to provide for their families with child care as their career.

“(Federal help) needed to come through yesterday,” she said. 

Both Marshall and the Sotos face the reality that despite the high price of child care, their careers still can’t guarantee a solid wage to support their needs.

If it weren’t for the child care discount offered at MaineLy, Marshall said she wouldn’t be able to have her child in care, and she likely wouldn’t be able to work.

Anne Soto, with seven years on the job at The Children’s Center and 15 total years in child care, is in a similar situation. 

Prior to working at The Children’s Center, even with a master’s degree in education, she was working for $12 an hour – less than Maine’s current minimum wage – with no health insurance, no paid time off, and no additional benefits.

While they have the employee discount for their son who still attends The Children’s Center, the Sotos now have to pay for additional after-school care for their daughter, who is in kindergarten.

Despite loving the work they do, Soto said she or her husband will have to consider other career opportunities because of the current state and costs of child care.

“The salaries or hours here are not sustainable for our family long term,” she said.