Day care providers, parents worry federal law makes it tougher to hire employees

Kim Cullen helps a student zip up her coat on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Cullen is a lead teacher at Wonder Years Childcare's preschool in Grand Forks. Bonnie Meibers/ Forum News ServiceKim Cullen helps a student zip up her coat on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Cullen is a lead teacher at Wonder Years Childcare's preschool in Grand Forks. Bonnie Meibers/ Forum News Service
Kim Cullen helps a student zip up her coat on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Cullen is a lead teacher at Wonder Years Childcare's preschool in Grand Forks. Bonnie Meibers/ Forum News ServiceKim Cullen helps a student zip up her coat on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Cullen is a lead teacher at Wonder Years Childcare's preschool in Grand Forks. Bonnie Meibers/ Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS -- Day cares here are fearful of closing due to a piece of federal legislation that went into effect last month.

Prior to Oct. 1, once newly hired staff at a day care provider were fingerprinted, they could begin working under supervision while they waited for their background check to be completed.

Now those people can’t work until the initial portion of the background check is completed, which sometimes takes more than a month, day care providers said.

These changes are the result of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014. This directs states to implement these stricter background requirements to ensure the safety of children in licensed and regulated child care, according to a news release from the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

This addition to the existing federal rule is making it harder to staff day cares, said Dan Polasky, owner of Wonder Years Childcare in Grand Forks.

“If it continues to be difficult to recruit new staff, this is really a workforce issue. We’re going to be sending kids home, and parents will have to miss work,” Polasky said.

Since the rule was implemented, Wonder Years has offered jobs to at least three people and was turned down because the jobseekers didn’t want to wait a month for work.

Human Services anticipated the concerns, Tara Reed of the agency’s Children and Family Services Division said.

“There are many agencies and variables involved in this process,” she said. “But we have tried to improve things on the front end by going to electronic records on (Jan. 1, 2018) and looking into what our processes were at the time and combining some things.”

Moving forward with the federal law is about looking at the current process and working with day care providers to make sure the children’s health and safety is upheld, said Amanda Carlson, the department’s early childhood services administrator.

“We all want to provide children with the best experience possible,” she said.

Supply and demand

Courtney Johnson, who sends her daughter and son to Wonder Years, said the delayed background checks are causing her stress.

“These delayed background checks are impacting staff to take care of my children. … Is my day care at risk of shutting down?” Johnson said.

Good child care is already hard to come by, Johnson said. And many other centers have long wait lists.

“When I was pregnant with my daughter three years ago, I started calling around and there were 15, 16 month-long waiting lists,” Johnson said.

Johnson is not against having an extensive background check for the people who could potentially be watching her children. Choosing where to send her kids is not a decision she takes lightly, she said.

But she completely trusts the staff at Wonder Years to hire people that are responsible, and she’s fine with having new hires watch her kids while the staff supervises them.

Polasky stressed he and other day care owners in the area are not against the extensive background checks either.

“We want background checks,” he said. “But when everyone else in town is hiring too, it’s hard to get people to stick around and wait 30 or 35 days to start working.”

Polasky sent a letter home with children detailing the issue to parents last week. He also gave parents stickers to wear to work on Nov. 15, that say “keep my day care open.”

“Hopefully parents and employers can impress upon the legislators in Bismarck that this is really a workforce issue,” Polasky said.

North Dakota Sen. Curt Kreun is also in support of a shortening the wait on these background checks.

“We need to find a solution,” Kreun said. “And I think we can, I think we can. But this issue doesn’t seem to have the urgency that I think it should.”

Kreun, who used to own several day cares in town, believes the issue could prevent parents from going to work.

“I want to visit with the governor’s office, I want to visit with the Department of Human Services, and work with them to find a solution to hasten the process,” Kreun said.

Johnson, a nurse at Altru, and her husband, a surgeon there, have discussed what would happen if Wonder Years were to close or turn her children away.

“I would have to quit my job until we figured something else out,” Johnson said.

For now, Johnson said, she feels she needs to support the day cares in this because they do so much for her family.

“We trust these centers with our children everyday and I’d really like to see the Legislature backing us up on this,” Johnson said.

An earlier version of this story contained errors. A new federal law increases the number of documents needed for background checks for new day care workers. Related to the change, the North Dakota Human Services Department switched to electronic records Jan. 1, 2018. Information on the source of the new law was incorrect in the headline. The law’s effect on the number of required documents and the start date for implementation of electronic records were unclear.