MOUNT VERNON — For working parents, affordable and reliable child care is a necessity. Finding it can be a burden. Spots are limited, especially for younger children and during second shifts and weekends.
Kelly Filippi, director of Cochran’s Lit’le Lambs Learning Center, has to turn a lot of prospective clients away. Her center is at full capacity, with space and laws about child-to-caregiver ratios limiting how many children she can take in.
“It’s amazing, I get calls pretty much daily,” said Filippi. “And I am somebody who wants to serve as many as possible, so I hate telling people no.”
Filippi says she encourages people to call back about once a month to see if spots open up, but she also keeps a wait-list and calls families if she has a vacancy.
“We are blessed to be full. It’s a good problem to have when you’re a small business,” she said. “But then we also become concerned when we have to tell too many families that we don’t have space right now because typically when a family calls, they need care now and they’ll go somewhere else.”
Filippi isn’t the only child care provider who’s noticed an uptick in demand.
“We’re in desperate need for infant/toddler spots in our community,” said Peg Tazewell, executive director of Knox County Head Start. Even with six centers, as of Oct. 3, there were 80 infants and toddlers on the Head Start waitlist.
Wendy McKinney, a supervisor at Opportunity Knox, said she’s seen families spread their kids across the county if there aren’t multiple slots available with one provider.
“A lot of times the families struggle to find care. Some families have to split them between providers,” she said. “You might have the baby in Apple Valley, the child in Fredericktown and the mom works in Mount Vernon.”
Other families opt to turn down employment opportunities due to the challenges or unavailability of child care.
Tazewell believes that the low-profit margins associated with the child care industry are likely why there is a lack of child care available in Knox county.
“I could open and fill multiple new classrooms, but I don’t have the space or the money to do it,” she said. “It’s very hard to make money on child care. It’s almost impossible on infant and toddler care because of the ratio that you need for adult caregiver to child.”
The maximum ratio of children per child care worker is set by the government and varies based on the children’s age. To ensure quality care, maximum group sizes are also limited.
A large staff isn’t the only cost child care centers incur. Childcare providers are also required by law to have insurance on their staff and the children in their care. Other operating costs include food, supplies, electricity, continuing education and training and wages.
After factoring in all the expenses involved in child care, offering it at an affordable price can be challenging.
“Running a center, you’re looking at, you have to pay your staff, you have to have a competitive wage and benefits like any other business but you can’t price yourself out of the market,” explained Brandy Booth, a supervisor at Opportunity Knox and former preschool administrator.
In addition to the high demand, the cost can also be a barrier to families seeking childcare. The Department of Health and Human Services considers child care “affordable” if it constitutes no more than 7 percent of household income, but this benchmark isn’t realistic for many families. The Economic Policy Institute found that the average cost of infant child care in Ohio is $9,697 a year.
Ohio subsidizes child care through the Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS), but only for families making 130 percent or less of the federal poverty wage.
That’s just $27,729 annually for a family of three or $33,475 for a family of four.
“That’s not a living wage,” said McKinney. “Knox County denies several applications monthly because a family is slightly over the income guidelines.”
There are approximately 200 children using state child care subsidies in Knox County. While subsidies allow their families to afford child care, they also might make it more difficult to find a spot. State subsidy rates are determined by ODJFS and are often lower than private pay rates, so some private providers limit their intake of subsidized clients. As Tazewell put it, the subsidy rates simply don’t cover the cost of care.
Tondi King runs a licensed center out of her home. At first, she charged her private pay families the same price that the state subsidy covered — then she crunched the numbers.
“I was making less than minimum wage, when it was all said and done,” she said.
And unlike private pay families, ODJFS only pays for the children on the days they attend. This can be frustrating for providers, who only have a limited number of slots available.
“For our private pay families, you have to pay the weekly rate whether your child’s there or not, because I have to pay my teachers and my light bill whether your child’s there or not,” Tazewell explained. “But the state doesn’t do that. The state only pays according to attendance.”
This can wreak havoc on an administrator’s balance sheet. Tazewell said Head Start’s income from state-subsidized families has fluctuated as much as $2,000 to $3,000 a week. As a federally-funded program, Head Start is required to accept subsidized families, but private centers and family child care homes can choose whether or not they wish to accept these children.
After years of providing state-subsidized child care, Lit’le Lambs made the transition to an all private-pay client base a few years ago. It took Filippi 18 months to make the call.
“Unfortunately we were losing money on that program. No matter what the families’ copay was or what the state or county would pay … we were never collecting the amount that we charge for our private pay families,” she said.
King still takes some subsidized children, but says she can’t afford to take on too many at a time.
To improve the child care situation in Knox County, Opportunity Knox began advertising the need for child care providers. Individuals interested in operating independent child care centers from their homes can become licensed as Type B providers. Opportunity Knox has offered would-be providers to help navigate the paperwork. Financial assistance is also available on a case-by-case basis to alleviate start-up costs.
“I would like to see another center or two in our area,” said Booth.
“It’s not always possible to help someone, but if we can we will,” said McKinney.