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Child Care Still Top Work Force Barrier for Women

April 2, 2024

Child care accessibility sits at the “top of the list” for women struggling to gain “economic security” both before the COVID-19 pandemic and after, says Cheryl Bergman, the chief executive officer of the Michigan Women’s Commission.

Women with children haven’t completely returned to the workforce since the pandemic, she found. Child care is expensive and hard to find because, in part, the pay is so low it dissuades potential applicants from getting into the field.

Bergman went on the March 25 MIRS Monday podcast to discuss the “Women in the Michigan Workforce” report that was published this month, and conducted by the state’s Center for Data and Analytics and Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

The report honed in on national numbers on the average labor force participation rates in 2023 for parents and non-parents, with ages ranging from 25 to 54 years old.

For individuals without children, the labor force participation rate was 79.9 percent throughout the United States for women and 85.8 percent for men. Meanwhile, for those with children under the age of 5, the participation rate was 74 percent for women and 95.3 percent for men.

Approximately 1.38 million (44 percent) of Michigan women between ages 16 and 64 worked “full-time, year round in 2022.” For men of the same ages, more than 1.85 million (58 percent) worked full-time, year round in the same year.

When Bergman started with the Michigan Women’s Commission near the end of 2019, she traveled throughout the state alongside the Governor to learn about the workplace challenges facing female Michiganders. This led to proposals to close pay gaps between genders and paid leave to care for family members.

What was top of mind?

“All economic security issues – with affordable, accessible childcare at the top of the list, and that was before the pandemic hit and really shone a light on the challenges we face with childcare,” Bergman said.

After the pandemic, 136,000 women left Michigan’s workforce, mostly due to caregiving responsibilities. About 2,000 women never came back.

In her 2022 research on “scarcity and surveillance in early childhood education,” Central Michigan University researcher Katie Sloan found that 91 percent of Michigan’s early childhood education (ECE) program administrators depended on public assistance “to make ends meet.”

Nationally, turnover among ECE providers ranges from 26 to 40 percent annually.

“As a culture, we don’t value caregiving . . . One of the big challenges is getting childcare workers because you don’t make a living wage as a childcare worker. You barely make a living wage as a K-12 teacher,” Bergman said. “These women’s occupations . . . like teachers, (childcare) workers, like even nursing . . . we see a gap in pay – an artificial lower wage for women for caregiving occupations.”

In conducting 16 different interviews with ECE providers, Sloan came across stories of significant financial hardship, with individuals saying they were providing childcare “despite the pay, not because of it.”

She spoke with an at-home provider who she said closed down operations “for a handful of months” because her homeowners’ association and local government officials were concerned about how her home-based center would influence traffic in the subdivision. She additionally spoke with an at-home provider who put an approximately $5,000 charge on her credit card to install an emergency exit window because there was a modification in the childcare code.

In June 2022, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of legislation intended to eliminate “red tape” on childcare businesses, such as giving providers a 90-day window to comply with new health and safety regulations and authorizing at-home providers to serve a ratio of 1-to-7 children instead of 1-to-6. The law also removed regulations that would bar childcare operations from taking place in multi-use buildings, providing more discretion to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to supervise such locations.

However, Sloan said “piecemeal policy changes are not going to get us where we need to go.” She recommended the state deploy big increases in publicly funded childcare investments and remove bureaucratic barriers, as well as some local regulatory obstacles.

“And then third, I think people don’t know about the programs that exist, so there is the childcare subsidy, there is the Great Start Readiness Program . . . but sometimes people don’t know that they qualify for those programs. That’s what I’ve been finding,” she said.

She said the failed childcare market involves different components “that are all driving one another.” She said if there isn’t public funding for childcare wages, then the accessibility issue can’t be fixed.

“Parents are struggling to pay tuition. Providers are struggling to pay (ECE) teachers because they’re taking in such little revenue…so the revenue is both high for parents, but low for the programs,” she said, explaining how, even after earning a master’s degree from Oakland University in ECE, she earned less than $40,000 annually leading programs. “We cannot continue to have a childcare market where parents’ fees are the only contributor to the workforce wages.”

Ultimately, she said early childhood education has to be funded as a public good.

For the Fiscal Year (FY) 2025 budget, Whitmer has proposed $159.5 million in new spending for the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), providing free Pre-K education to eligible families. Through the recommended added funding, which raises total GSRP spending to $650 million, the income requirement to be at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level would be lifted.

Moreover, the money would cover an estimated 6,800 additional youths to be covered by the program and new Pre-K classrooms will be opened in “underserved areas.”

As for childcare below Pre-K, the Governor’s FY ’25 budget suggestions include $37.9 million to increase pay rates by 10 percent for providers already subsidized by the state, $60 million to launch a pilot financial assistance program for childcare workers to enroll their own youths into programs and $8.5 million to raise pay rates by 30 percent for childcare workers serving foster youths.

Democratic legislators like Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) have said that in order for them to get behind the new budget, there needs to be a bigger investment in private childcare providers accepting youths from infancy through 3 years old.


Article courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog newsletter

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