When an in-home child care provider needs to take sick leave or attend an industry training for the day, there are two options: Have a qualified substitute fill in or close the doors.
In Washington, neither choice is simple.
Substitutes must meet state requirements such as child care, CPR, health and food handling training. Finding someone qualified who is available at the necessary time can be a burden.
But closing the child care for a day is often not an option, either. Providers in the low-paying industry can’t afford to lose a day’s work, and neither can the parents they support.
Today, a state-backed substitute pool aims to eliminate this conundrum. While smaller-scale substitute pools and private coordinating networks have been around for decades, this was the first state-funded system in the U.S., according to Angela Abrams, a professional development administrator for Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees child care services.
The program launched less than five years ago and covers the cost of substitutes to complete the training necessary to run a child care. It also pays $15 an hour to subs covering a designated number of days allowed to in-home providers statewide.
To date, there are roughly 160 to 200 certified substitutes statewide, said Abrams.
For in-home providers, these subs could prove especially useful in allowing them to step away from their business to complete continued learning requirements, which the state ramped up in August. They’re also available for sick days and vacation leave important to preventing burn-out.
The state has 3,148 in-home child cares, with 235 in Yakima County alone, according to the most recent data from Child Care Aware Washington.
But government officials and providers say the current substitute pool may be too shallow to meet the full needs of the industry.
A look at the numbers
Nationwide, the median pay for in-home providers was $10.35 per hour in 2017, a 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley found.
The families of child care workers in the U.S. are twice as likely to live in poverty as those of other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
So every dollar counts. But Yakima County in-home providers estimated a loss of $300 to $450 for each day they close their doors.
What’s more, the economy suffers when child care services are unstable, according to recent research commissioned by a Legislature-mandated task force on child care. About $3.7 billion was lost to Washington’s economy in 2017 due to missed opportunities such as production cuts caused by child care disruptions.
At the same time, high-quality child care is linked to improved education outcomes, making for a better workforce down the road. In recognition of this, lawmakers passed the Early Start Act in July 2015, which aimed to fully prepare all students to enter kindergarten. Incentives for participation in early learning programs ramped up as a result, and early childhood education requirements for child care providers have evolved as well.
In August, for example, the state rolled out new education or equivalent expectations for providers and their workers, to be complete by mid-year 2024.
To help providers fulfill continued learning expectations, the Early Start Act also provided funding for the launch of a state-sponsored substitute pool that would allow providers to step away from their centers.
The sub pool
The substitute pool works much like the K-12 substitute system at the moment, said Abrams of DCYF. A child care provider uses the software system and registers that he or she needs a substitute. Then, someone from The Imagine Institute, a Washington nonprofit contracted to oversee the sub pool, connects an approved substitute with the facility, she said.
Statewide, there are 161 active and approved substitutes in the system. Roughly 440 more people are pursuing qualifications through the system, said Abrams, although she said there was no way to say how many would finish the requirements. Of those, 12 are approved substitutes in Yakima County and 48 are finishing qualifications.
While the pool started as a way to help providers obtain continued education, it has expanded to also allow sick and vacation leave, she said.
“Workforce challenges are big and they’re real. One of the things we know is that people need time (away),” Abrams said.
In July, the state struck a deal with the labor union that represents child care workers to fund five days of substitute coverage for in-home providers through 2021. But Abrams said the pool of subs needs to grow to make that possible for all providers.
“Technically, it’s statewide,” Abrams said of the pool. “We haven’t had too many people reporting back that they don’t have the right access. So we can’t say we don’t have the right ratio, since not everyone has asked, but if everybody were to raise their hands and say they want a sub, we want to continue to ramp up to meet that (demand). ... We’re not in that place.”
The state is always looking for more subs to add to the list, she said, and pays for the necessary training.
For someone with no prior training, it costs the state roughly $1,000. It takes about 42 hours of training, according to DCYF.
The goal is twofold, Abrams said: have a substitute pool to support existing industry workers, and support the workforce pipeline by funding training for substitutes who might become full-time providers in the future.
In November, a state-mandated task force looking at the child care issue recommended that the substitute pool be expanded for both purposes.
It’s a timely effort. Statewide, licensed child care centers have the capacity to serve only 17% of children younger than 13, according to research by the panel.
And in less than two years, the number of child care providers in Yakima County alone has taken a steep dive, declining from 416 centers and in-home providers in early 2018 to 311 today, according to Child Care Aware data. DCYF data places the current number closer to 325. The cause of the discrepancy is unclear.
Maki Park, head of early learning in Washington state for national grassroots organization MomsRising, said this decline in services in Yakima County is representative of a larger trend seen across the state.
Substitute pools are not immune to these problems, according to researchers from CSCCE of Berkeley.
“Due to some of the lowest wages in the nation, finding qualified staff in general is a problem for the child care industry, which then extends to building a substitute pool,” said Caitlin McLean, a CSCCE workforce research specialist.
The organization’s director emerita, Marcy Whitebook, echoed her.
“There have been repeated attempts to develop substitute pools over the years, as far back as the 1980s,” she said. “Finding subs is an issue for both home-based and center-based programs. In addition, good subs often get hired as permanent staff.”
But DCYF officials said substitutes being pulled away from the sub pool for full-time work isn’t a detriment to the system.
“Some end up getting hired, and although the person isn’t a substitute, they are serving the community’s children and families.”