Child care center operator Nicole Flick sees no shortage of parents trying to secure spots for their children.
"The spots are there,” Flick said. “We just can't fill them because we don't have enough staff to meet the ratios required by the state."
The ABC123 Child Enrichment Center in Dilworth, Minn., east of Moorhead, is licensed for 173 children. But right now they can only accept 143 children.
Flick said she's in a tough position. She can't raise prices because parents aren't going to be able to pay more, but in order to attract and hold onto staff she needs to increase wages. She can't afford to pay benefits, which puts her at a further disadvantage against fast food companies in her part of northwestern Minnesota.
At the same time, she's seen prices on food, utilities and supplies all go up. She worries that she won't be able to stay open much longer at this rate.
"It's very difficult to try to just keep the doors open. That's what we're doing right now. It's just putting out fire after fire,” she said.
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Child care facilities confront the same staffing issues many care-providing industries, such as nursing homes, face. They’ve been able to find enough people to care for children before, but parents are increasingly desperate for slots as the other arm of child care, family child care providers continue to close.
Since 2002, the state has gone from 14,000 family child care providers to around 6,300 now. The number of child care centers has remained steady and even increased a bit over those years.
Now some child care centers are facing a real possibility of closure.
"In Minnesota, we are definitely seeing some critical shortages, more child care is needed across the state of Minnesota, generally speaking, and due to many factors, the child care industry is facing staffing and an access crisis,” said Bharti Wahi, the deputy assistant commissioner for children and family services with the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
"The rural parts of our state have higher numbers of licensed family child care providers,” she said. “So the dwindling provider pool there certainly has an impact on overall child care capacity."
"As a family child care provider, we are more affordable,” said Cyndi Cunningham, public policy chairperson for the Minnesota Child Care Provider Information Network and a family child care provider, who said she makes “a livable wage."
Cunningham, of St. Paul, believes the state and local governments could step in to help fill the gap. She said smaller communities just don't have the numbers to make having a child care center work, but they could support a family child care providers.
"There are people out there who could be running family child care, who could economically help their community and have a profession and help contribute to solving this,” she said. “We cannot keep losing family child care providers and have economical, affordable child care."
Clare Sanford, the government relations chair for the Minnesota Child Care Association, says the workforce shortage is most visible in care for the youngest children, where the required staffing is one caregiver for four infants as opposed to a one to 15 ratio for school age kids.
"The real crisis is in infants and toddlers, that is when there's the least amount of care. We have the biggest scarcity of infant and toddler spots in Minnesota,” she said. “That's when care is most expensive."
Having two kids in child care can cost parents more than college tuition, Sanford said. Parents with two children in day care may pay more than $28,000 a year — for infants it’s up to $330 a week.
Sanford says government financial support during COVID, which will run through next June, has helped many providers to stay open during a challenging time. They are looking for state help when the Minnesota Legislature convenes next year.
"The main thing really is to increase public investment because of the market failure in child care. This is a public good that supports the rest of our economy,” Sanford said. “People need us so they can go be in the workforce."