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Should Lamont be doing more for Connecticut’s child care workers?

child care
Mikhail Nilov

Although many Connecticut residents were home with their children during COVID, essential workers relied on child care. An unprecedented situation led to unpredictable schedules, exacerbating an issue that has existed far longer than COVID: Connecticut child care professionals need better support.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “In Connecticut, the child care industry cries out for a fix,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: During the pandemic, there was a focus in Connecticut on providing child care, so first responders and other essential workers could keep working. You write that this was just a symptom of a larger problem we've had with the availability of childcare for working Americans. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

EP: Sure. Before the pandemic, there was already quite a shortage of child care slots in Connecticut and it had been talked about — the Office of Early Childhood had pointed this out and many organizations had called for more help for the industry. And then we had the pandemic come along. And the people who work in this sector were, like a lot of sectors, were really asked to step up.

And they went above and beyond to, like you said, ensure that essential workers were available to do the work that needed to happen during this crisis that we were in. And that meant this other sector of the economy, which is a significant component of the economy, there are a lot of child care businesses, daycare centers, in-home family care providers, that are trying to make ends meet, just like any small business, and they made many, many sacrifices to make it possible for the essential workers in the labor force to keep working.

So that meant everything from, you know, taking on additional responsibilities, like handing out food in their communities, being a place where other childcare providers could come and pick up cleaning supplies to things like, you know, basically never taking a day off. If days off were planned, I talked to child care providers who, you know, at the last minute an essential worker would say, actually, I really need you and, you know, they go ahead and take the child and work on their day off.

WSHU: And this is for very little pay.

EP: Exactly. You've got a segment of the economy. These are businesses, these are small businesses. And what it costs to provide child care is actually more than the going market rate. So you're already kind of facing challenges just making ends meet. Vouchers for parents and public support are often based on that market rate, not on the true cost. So even when you get these reimbursements from public funding, it still might not really cover everything. That keeps wages depressed, and it makes it difficult for these businesses to keep going. And as a result, you know, when the pressure was on even more of them started to close or just shut down classrooms and the capacity has shrunk even more during the pandemic.

WSHU: Now the child care industry has been calling for the use of Connecticut's budget surplus. I believe we have about $3 billion in surplus money in the budget right now. And they want some of that money to be used to boost pay for child care providers and to create more slots for early childhood. What's going on with that? What's the Lamont administration's response to this push from the industry?

EP: Well, it's interesting, the Lamont administration said, you know, there's kind of some complicated sort of government stuff going on here. So the governor passes a budget every two years. And so last year was when the budget was passed, last year's budget did boost child care quite significantly. But this year, the governor is allowed to sort of make some adjustments to that budget. But from my understanding, there weren't really any adjustments made specifically to the child care funding. So their point was, we did boost childcare last year. So there's more funding there for it.

But you know, folks in the child care industry, who again, have been going above and beyond for the last two years, you know, I heard from more than one person that it was like a slap in the face that that funding was not boosted this year or not adjusted if you will. But at the same time, some of the administration are saying they're waiting to get an understanding from the federal government, of what any decisions that might be made, as far as funding from the feds for child care, because there are some efforts there to pass some laws that would make it so that no family pays more than 7% of their income on child care, and there's universal preschool. So those efforts are going on at the federal level. And if any of that kind of moves forward, the state might want to adjust what it's putting into that industry.

WSHU: So what is the timetable here? Because we have a situation where there's a problem right now, the state says, well, the feds might be handling this right now, so we’ll wait for the feds. But how sure are we that the feds are going to do something? And in the meantime, what does the industry do? Are the stakeholders optimistic that something would be done anytime soon to help us save the situation?

EP: Your question, how sure are we sure that the feds are going to do something? And is there a timeline? You know, kind of a perennial question for a lot of things right now. So it's fair to say, because there is clearly momentum there — but there's been a lot of momentum for a lot of things, and then it kind of gets quashed — this has been a pattern. It's kind of how Congress is functioning at the moment. So yeah, it certainly puts the state and the Lamont administration in a tough spot.

I will say, no one in the administration is saying this isn't a problem; everyone clearly understands the infrastructure of the economy is balanced on the structure of this specific industry. In a lot of ways, the labor force is enabled by child care providers, and those providers are very vulnerable and at-risk at the moment and actually have been for a while. The pandemic just sort of made it all that much worse.

So it's not that they're not saying it's a problem, but it's not clear when a solution is going to come around. So maybe the General Assembly will be able to take some action on that. There are several bills moving through the Connecticut General Assembly at the moment. And we'll see if and when they come up for the debate and how the votes go. So that’ll be in the next few weeks. There are only a few weeks left of the session. So we'll see what happens.

WSHU: Well, so that's what the industry has to hold on to for now.

EP: I guess so, yeah. And yeah, I mean, they've been holding on to a lot for a long time. As I said, this has got a whole heck of a lot worse for a lot of folks and for parents, harder and harder. So when will it all culminate? When will there be a change? We’ll see.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.