JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Jody Jurgevich sees fast-food restaurants offering work incentives and sign-on bonuses and hopes her employees don’t leave.

“Here we are in child care, where workers don’t get offered much more over minimum wage and they don’t get benefits,” she said.

Jurgevich is director of Trinity Lutheran Childcare and Learning Center in Somerset, Pa. She said that, for her to raise wages, parents would have to pay more than they do now – and child care is already one of the biggest expenses for a household.

“It’s scary to think about what the future of child care programs looks like,” she said.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care is being spoken of in the same conversation as infrastructure.

While child care has been a focus of economic strategies during past crises, the emphasis was temporary. The first and only time in American history when parents could send their children to affordable, federally subsidized child care, regardless of income, was during World War II, so that mothers could enter the labor force. After the war, mothers left the labor force and the child care program ended.

In 2020, among married couple families with children, about 60% of families had both parents employed, a national survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Single-wage earners are becoming rare, said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together, a Pittsburgh-based child advocacy group.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to support families,” she said. “I think the great part about early childhood education is it is a bipartisan issue. It comes down to the question of how much do we invest in it?”

About $1.18 billion from Congress’ American Rescue Plan was earmarked for child care in Pennsylvania in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding is expected to be appropriated in the budget cycle starting this summer and would be administered over the next few years.

As the state decides how to invest those funds, Ciminillo said Trying Together recommends adding funds to meet the needs of the child-care work force.

“If you are a childcare worker making only $11 an hour, but you can go to Giant Eagle or Aldi’s and make $14 an hour, that’s where you are going to go,” she said. “One of the things I believe we have to consider is: how do we make sure the work force is compensated in a way that allows them to do the work we need them to do?”

Child care workers on average in Pennsylvania earn $24,000 annually, or $11.57 hourly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the spring of 2020, many people on the lower end of the earnings spectrum were laid off or left the work force entirely as a result of the pandemic.

Across the nation, the number of full-time child care workers decreased by 19%, or 90,000 workers, from 2019 to 2020, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

Many child-care staffers worked through the pandemic. Cambria County Child Development Corp. provided day care to Greater Johnstown School District teachers during the peak of COVID-19, Superintendent Amy Arcurio said.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, we had child care for all employees,” she said. “They could bring children in.”

Even before the pandemic, Leah Spangler, president of the Learning Lamp, a Johnstown-based early education group, had been working toward building a more stable child-care workforce in the region.

“It’s a broken economic model,“ she said. “I feel badly for parents because I fully realize child care could be their single biggest expense including more than their mortgage. By the same token, I realize that even with those payments that are expensive to parents, we are still not able to pay a competitive wage to people who are doing the work of caring for those children.”

The Learning Lamp has become the hub of a shared service alliance for providers in the region to start pooling their resources to recruit staff. The alliance grew from three to more than 30 members in the three years since it started, Spangler said.

Members of the alliance can save money by pooling resources to afford administrative services, said Jen DeBell, director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. The PAEYC coaches providers on how to form alliances.

“There is also a possibility that as programs save money through things like shared services, they could be investing in their teachers’ wages to retain them,” DeBell said.

Jurgevich signed up Trinity Lutheran Childcare to be one of the first providers to join the alliance.

“Providers aren’t competitors anymore – we are all in this together,” she said. “We are trying to service families in the community as best we can, and it’s hard to keep turning families away.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

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