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Child care vital issue for businesses, communities, FMWF Chamber panelists say

“(Child care is) important because it allows parents to go to work. It is the backbone of our economy,” one expert said. "It’s the business that allows other businesses to stay in business.”

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Chelsey Steinlicht, center, owner and operator of Bright Futures Learning Center in Fargo, says her business has a waiting list of more than 700 families during the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues event on child care needs Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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MOORHEAD - Arica Murphy was three months pregnant with her son when she started looking for a child care provider so she could make a seamless transition to returning to her job at the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation.

She thought the early start would make the process easy, stress-free. It was anything but.

“We called over over 100 in-home daycares and child care centers and we could not find child care for our son,” Murphy told attendees Tuesday, July 12, at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s latest Eggs & Issues program, “Childcare: The Workforce Dilemma.”

The waiting lists were long, she said, and it wasn’t until two weeks before she was to return to work from maternity leave that she found a spot. But there was a catch: It required an hour of extra traveling to add to her two-hour round-trip from the Detroit Lakes area.

That brought the time on the road to three hours a day - untenable in the winter.

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Child care is also expensive, she told business and community leaders who packed the Courtyard by Marriott ballroom.

“Even with one child, it can be as much, if not more” than a mortgage payment, she said.

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Arica Murphy contacted more than 100 child care centers before finding child care for her infant son, she told attendees at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues event Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Her solution was to quit her job. Come August, she hopes to be working from home as a licensed child care provider.

“Even though I’m not licensed yet, I already have a wait list of over 20 children just under the age of 2,” Murphy said.

Robin Nelson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Red River Valley, moderated an hourlong discussion with experts who included:

  • Nancy Jost, director of Early Childhood for the West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls, Minn.
  • North Dakota state Sen. Judy Lee, R-District 13 (West Fargo). Lee is chairwoman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee.
  • Chelsey Steinlicht, owner and operator of Bright Futures Learning Centers in Fargo.
  • Karen Pifher, owner of Creating Community Consulting, a Frazee, Minn.-based organizational consulting service.

Jost said quality child care is key for a healthy society and preparing children to succeed. She said it needs to be a higher priority to keep families and businesses strong.
“It’s important because it allows parents to go to work. It is the backbone of our economy,” Jost said. "It’s the business that allows other businesses to stay in business.”

Child care can be expensive, especially for families with low or modest incomes.

The average annual cost for childcare is $8,500 a year for a school age child, and $9,500 per year for an infant, Nelson said. Meanwhile, the average wage for a child care worker is low - $11.61 per hour.

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Steinlicht said accessibility is a critical issue with wait lists for all levels of providers. Her two Bright Futures locations in south Fargo already care for about 400 children.

“We have a wait list that’s over 700 families long right now,” Steinlicht said.

Pifher said businesses can help, whether that be providing space for child care on site, or increasing benefits.

“We invest in what we care about,” Pifher said. That can include allowing flex spending for child care costs, flexible scheduling, remote work options, and other support from human resources.

Lee said North Dakota is trying to meet the needs of low- to middle-income families, but there are many issues to be addressed, including covering nights and weekends, care for children with special needs, and staffing.

“These are all a little tougher” issues, Lee said.

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Average wages for child care workers have risen in recent years but decreased from $11.61 to $11.19 an hour from 2020 to 2021, said Zach Packineau, director of outreach and programming for ND Voices Network.

Money is a major issue for parents and providers.

Experts recommend families pay no more than 7% of their income on child care, Jost said, but data shows that people who are low income pay on average 35% of their income on child care.

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“The reason child care is even close to being affordable, is because the child care workforce subsidizes costs with low wages. This is unfair to the women who do this work,” Jost said.

Profit margins for the child care industry are razor thin, about 3%, Pifher said.

“We have an income issue. We have a startup issue. We have issues with financial sustainability across the board,” Pifher said.

“It truly is going to take a community solution to come at this, and not just one business or two, but really a partnership among our community,” Steinlicht said.

Nelson noted that there is a “financial cliff” ahead, as federal legislation that gave states pandemic economic relief - some of which was directed to child care - will expire in the coming year.

If those subsidies aren’t renewed, child care providers will have to pass higher costs on to the families they serve.

Jost said child care should be treated like infrastructure.

“To me, child care, early childhood (education), paid family leave, is like infrastructure. We think of roads, bridges, libraries, all of those things, schools …. I pay for them because I want a society that works for everyone. And I think that about child care, too. I don’t have little children anymore, but I am really concerned about it, because it makes our society a better place, a safer place, a healthier place,” Jost said.

Jost said it will be up to the federal government to step up and improve child care funding. She encouraged audience members to talk to their state and federal lawmakers about the issue.

“We must take care of the next generation of our country if we want this to be the country that we love and we want to live in.” Jost said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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