Child Care Deserts: The Struggle of a Provider to Survive in the Business

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Child care and early education programs are a crucial part of children’s well-being and necessary for many families who have to work.

According to the most recent data from the Kids Count Data Center, around two-thirds of children under the age of six in the U.S. have both parents in the labor force.

The people who care for children are one of the main factors in quality early education, yet they rarely feel acknowledged as such.

Sandra Cumplido’s day starts at 8 a.m. and ends well past 7 p.m. She’s on the clock seven days a week taking care of as many as eight children, all under the age of three.

"They learn their ABCs, they learn their language," said Cumplido. "I teach [them] English and Spanish. "[They] especially [like lessons involving] dancing. Oh my God, they love to dance, especially to Mexican songs. They really like the cha-cha.”

She’s been doing the work for nearly 30 years, but still, she can’t afford to pay herself an adequate salary.

"Good thing I have money saved," said Cumplido. "It's not a lot of money, but I have money. But, like, I wish that we as childcare providers would get paid more. [At least] minimum wage, so I wouldn't have to use my savings to keep my assistants or to buy the essentials.”

Cumplido serves only low-income families who get state-subsidized care. This means she relies on subsidies to fund her business. Typically, she says, she gets $257 a week per child under the age of two.

"You divide $257 into five days and it comes to $51.40 a day," said Cumplido. "Now, you divide that by 10 hours, and it comes to $5.14  hourly. That's how much I'm getting paid per child. And this is for an infant, for toddlers, it's less, and preschoolers is less."

Cumplido says she keeps less than half of the money she makes. Most of it goes towards her rent, bills, groceries, diapers, and the upkeep of her daycare. Her struggles are typical of childcare workers who have long been among the lowest-paid workers in the country.

According to data from the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, the incomes of childcare workers run anywhere from $16,200 to $30,000 per year. Placing the salaries of professionals in this business below those of many housekeepers, fast-food employees, and retail workers.

Employment benefits are also often more scarce for childcare providers like Cumplido, who run small businesses out of their homes. According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, less than half of childcare providers have time off as part of their agreements with family. Only about a fifth have retirement savings and at least 16% have no health insurance, that’s compared to 8% of the entire U.S. population who is without it.

“I'm still here because I love my job," said Cmplido. "And as I said, this is my life, this is what I know, this is it. And I'm struggling, but I'm still here for my community and for the parents. I'm still here and I am very passionate about that.”

But many childcare professionals find that the numbers just don't add up. Lori Borne shut down the childcare program she ran out of her home last year.

"When the pandemic first started, in-home childcare providers and nannies were not even addressed," said Borne. "When it came to closing everything down, the schools, the preschools were addressed, they were given resources, they were given information, but early childhood education and in-home childcare providers were not.”

For 22 years, Borne cared for and meticulously guided and educated toddlers in her care.

“We were providing them with their nutrition, their education, their environmental enrichment, their science enrichment, just their everyday life and preparing them for Preschool," said Borne.

When her landlord failed to renew her lease, borne was forced to close her program and look for a new location.

"When you're doing in-home family childcare, you're relying on whatever money you're able to put away," said Borne. "There was no kind of program available for me to get funding to be able to relocate to, you know, [or] hold over for months until the enrollment built back up.”

According to research from Child Care Aware of America, her center was one of about 16,000 closures that happened nationally between December 2019 and March 2021. In San Diego, just in the first six months of 2021, 37 centers closed their doors with just 20 opening up. The closures hit the most vulnerable neighborhoods the hardest.

Lack of support and funding is a common complaint among those in the business.

"One of the barriers is when providers don't get a notice, in a timely manner, to get the resources they need to offer quality childcare," said Kathleen Tostado-Kenshur, Encinitas childcare business owner.

Tostado-Kenshur has been a provider for over 45 years. She serves on the board of multiple childcare worker groups and advocates for those in the field.

"If I was the policymaker, I would make sure that I accounted for inflation, be more current, you know, [with the amount given to providers in subsidies,]" said Tostado-Kenshur. "Really look at the bigger picture on what it's going to take, you know, to keep these people in business.”

Tostado-Kenshur is talking about subsidized care but there are many families that not only don’t qualify for the benefits but cannot afford child care. 

NBC 7 reached out to the county to ask how they are supporting the childcare industry in San Diego and were introduced to Dezerie Martinez who serves at the Child Care and Development Local Planning Council.

"The council is tasked with pulling together a plan, basically recommendations, for the county board of supervisors and the county superintendent of schools to help them determine how to best move forward and support the needs of child care," said Martinez.

Most recently, she says, the county board of supervisors approved a plan to prioritize the workforce. In the plan is a proposal for childcare worker rate reform which includes supporting professional wages and benefits that match the expertise and commitment of the provider. 

NBC 7 also reached out to the State of California to ask if they were aware of the concerns expresses to us by childcare workers and they responded with a news release from April. The release announced they would have awarded an additional $289 million to the childcare industry, from which 27,000 providers would have benefitted from up to $10,000 in additional help.

Meanwhile, caregivers like Cumplido are hanging on to their passion.

"They need to see what we do as childcare providers," said Cumplido. "They will see, they will be amazed how we work so hard."

She hopes the support and recognition come sooner rather than later.

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