Wayne County child care providers battle waitlists, low pay

A young student plays with legos among other preschoolers at Little Scholars child care center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Thursday April 1, 2021.
Children play at Little Scholars child care center in Detroit in 2021 in this file photo. Child care providers in Wayne County worry about long waitlists and low pay. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Betty Henderson has spent two decades working in child care in Detroit, starting out of her home, growing to a larger site, and now buying a former church for space to “double-plus” the 30-child enrollment she has.

She knows the need for child care is great.

“Every day is a good four to five calls that want daytime hours for the babies that are either less than 12 months or 1 to 2 years old, and I have totally run out of room for them,” said Henderson, owner of Angels of Essence Day Care on the city’s west side.

But “telling them no and having a waitlist is just not feasible, because parents need care right now.”

In her 20 years in business, she said, “I’ve never had a waiting list.” Now, though, “it’s an outpour. And I’m trying to do what I can to get them in here.”

She had 19 children on her waitlist in May, whom she referred out to a few other child care providers. The first week of July, she had 13 to 14 on the waitlist and nine calls on the answering machine.

Providers say child care faced great struggles before the coronavirus pandemic. But the last two years have brought additional pressures.

Michigan’s child care industry is in crisis, according to “Disappearing Day Care,” a 10-month investigation by MuckRock and a consortium of Michigan newsrooms. And the data and documents show the problem is worse than policymakers thought.

The investigation found the number of child care deserts in Michigan — regions where three children compete for every slot at an in-home or group center — is nearly double previous estimates.

Data show 20 counties have so few child care options, they qualify as deserts. Wayne and Macomb counties are among 23 counties nearly qualifying as deserts, too.

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Child care provider closings have outpaced openings during the pandemic; and a cumulative statewide list includes more than 54,000 children waiting for a spot. Oakland and Washtenaw counties are among those with waitlists longer than 5,000.

Treat child care ‘like an industry’

State leaders say they are trying to improve child care in Michigan and have directed $1.4 billion of federal relief money to help stabilize the system. But the cash is a one-time fix to aid providers during the pandemic.

Some of the money has brought additional financial help to bump up already-low hourly wages for child care workers and provide hiring bonuses. But providers fear that these funds will be gone next year, and that the money is still much less than what the staff deserve for the work they do and for the families who entrust their children into their care.

“Right now, today, because of COVID, it’s almost like now they want to listen to us,” Henderson said of legislators and others. “They hear: ‘Oh now there is a need for child care. We want to get these parents back to work. We want to get them off unemployment.’”

But additional child care subsidies to help pay staff “shouldn’t be taken back from us just because they want to say that the pandemic is over or that it’s not as bad as it was,” Henderson said.

Nina Hodge, longtime owner of Above And Beyond Learning Child Care Center on Detroit’s east side, agrees.

“Treat (child care) like an industry. We are essential people just as well,” she said. “We don’t watch TV in there. We get them ready for school, kindergarten, social development … all kinds of stuff.”

Grants help, but what happens when they’re gone?

Hodge said she’s licensed for 60 children and has six full-time and about a half-dozen part-time staff. Her center is open about 12 hours a day Monday through Friday.

The child care stabilization grants have provided some additional money to centers like hers to help with pay, among other expenses.

Hodge said she received a $104,000 stabilization grant in January of this year that she used for payroll, bonuses and mental health awareness for staff, recruiting new staff, supplies for children, and new doors. She received a $106,000 grant in June of this year that she used for payroll, bills, daily operating expenses, and minor repairs and updating.

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Staff, including a cook, make about $12 an hour, Hodge said. She would like to pay them more, but she can’t. 

She said hourly reimbursement rates from the state for child care providers are set to go down in the future. Hodge is concerned about providers and wonders “how will they be able to survive once these grants are over with?”

Henderson received about $48,000 as a first stabilization grant, which she said helped cover staff raises, and $57,000 in the second round of grants, which provided staff bonuses, other payroll help, and hiring as she went to overnight care.

She also used the money for the lease payment on the building, utilities, and insurance, including workers’ compensation and liability.

Henderson said child care providers deserved the bump before the pandemic — and they’ll deserve it after the pandemic. She said her staff salaries, including lead teachers, range from $12 to $17 per hour. Prior to the changes from the pandemic funds, wages were several dollars less per hour.

Centers’ challenge: Getting what they need

Qualifications for child care employment often aren’t the same as working at a fast-food restaurant or a retail job, despite the pay being the same — if not more — in those other industries.

Child care workers need training, including first aid and CPR; a police background check; a tuberculosis test; education through hours of schooling or day care experience; and an associate’s or college degree or additional credentials if someone wants to be a lead teacher, providers said.

Damon Jones, owner of LoveLee Care centers in Mount Clemens and Clinton Township, said in late May that the demand he saw was for lead teachers and directors.

Because of the child-to-teacher ratios, he said new hires often must be a lead teacher, which requires meeting more criteria, to accommodate additional children wanting to enter a program.

“That’s the challenge — in getting what you need,” he said.

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During the pandemic, Jones said, he had “plenty of kids on my waiting list. We just keep a waiting list until we get a teacher … We’ve got pandemic babies that are trying to find service. Because of the high demand, the rates are going up. There’s nowhere for them to go.”

During a Free Press interview in May, he said he received four calls that morning asking if anything had changed regarding the waitlist. He said the Mount Clemens location was licensed in 2018, prior to the pandemic, and staff was already in place. The Clinton Township center was licensed at the end of 2020 for 67 children, but only about 17 were there because of low staff numbers.

The waitlist, he said, was “strenuous.”

India Armstrong, owner of Baby University in St. Clair Shores, said in June that staffing hadn’t been an issue for her center, which opened in 2019. Finding real estate was the problem.

Armstrong couldn’t find a larger location to lease to expand from her 1,800-square-foot space.

She said she tried to work with one location owner, but he backed out three different times, and few buildings zoned for day cares are available for lease in the city. Sites available for sale were costing $750,000 to $1 million, she said.

Armstrong said her center was at its licensed capacity with 30 children enrolled, full-time and part-time, and 10 to 12 staff.

The weekday center catered to children ages 6 weeks up to school-age and offered some Saturday evening care for parents to have a date night or to do whatever they need, especially if the parents don’t have family in the area to babysit or they moved here from another state.

At that time, the waitlist was 75 families. She said the center sent out notes asking if families still need care, and “they’re like ‘yes, yes, keep us on the waitlist.’” 

About 70% of the families were private pay, with the average cost of full-time care at $300 a week. Staff was paid between $14 and $16 per hour with the director paid $48,000 a year, she said.

“And what we do is eat our profit to pay our people, essentially. So, if we get money for grants or anything like that, you know, that kind of helps us with supplies and things like that,” she said.

Food also is always an expense for child care centers, and these types of costs now are going up because of inflation.

“That’s all our babies do,” Armstrong said. “They want to eat all day. With their brain development, they have to eat.”

Waitlists abound

Rebekah Michelson said she started getting on waitlists for child care 10 to 12 months before her second son was born just before the pandemic began in 2020.

The Brownstown Township mother of two boys knew she would need child care when returning to work full time from maternity leave that September.

It was about two weeks away from her return to work when she learned her youngest would be “next on the list” at a nearby center that the 2-year-old still was attending this spring.

“It was like a stroke of luck,” Michelson said.

“I do feel like we’re kind of one of the luckier ones, because I know we have a couple of options in my ZIP code and a couple of ZIP codes next to us. But it’s still very limited,” she said.

Compared with looking for child care years before the pandemic for her older son, who was 6 in May, Michelson said there were “definitely more waitlists this time around.” Her older son previously attended a Downriver day care about 15 minutes from their home, starting when he was about 2½ years old.

In her desire to find a center for her youngest, Michelson said she even tried a couple of unlicensed sites.

The center she was using this spring didn’t have enough staff and had recently closed a classroom one day each week. While her youngest could attend four days a week, she had to find child care for him on the fifth day with family or by taking a sick day.

Michelson, who also was taking classes for a master’s degree in social work, said her youngest son’s child care center was offering signing bonuses for workers — money a lot of centers can’t offer.

She said child care worker salaries, in general, are “miserable. It’s horrible, and they deserve so much more, honestly.”

Michelson said she believes communities need to step up to help child care centers thrive by taking steps such as offering space or start-up incentives.

“People need these places,” she said.

Making a difference for every child

To avoid additional staff burnout, Henderson did not take summer kids at her center in Detroit this year, making it the first year where she didn’t have a student over 5 years old.

“It’s heartbreaking, but I think my staff deserve it,” she said, adding that she referred parents to summer camps and other child care centers.

Henderson said her business has continued all these years on referrals and word of mouth, not business cards, websites or social media.

While hers is not a big center, Henderson said she tries to impart to employees and new candidates that they are part of a professional, reliable team and that this is a career. She said she offers incentives to staff — raffles, early days off with pay, gift cards and events outside of work — to let them know they are appreciated.

Unlike some of her colleagues in child care, Henderson said she hasn’t had people get hired for the signing bonus and then quit.

“I try to make it fun to where you want to get up and come to work and educate the little people. And that’s why I’ve had this staff for so long,” she said. “It is hard work. But at the end of the day, the goal is to make a difference in every child that walks through the door.”

Christina Hall is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Contact her at chall@freepress.com.

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