Child care providers Shannon Blake (left) and Jordan Bemel at one of their Sprouts Aftercare sites
Child care providers Shannon Blake (left) and Jordan Bemel at one of their Sprouts Aftercare sites at Monarch Community School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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‘We’re in crisis’: Santa Cruz County providers and parents burdened by broken child care system

Lacking infrastructure and investment, child care providers in Santa Cruz County struggle to make ends meet amid a workforce shortage, regulations that govern staffing levels and razor-thin profit margins. A countywide child care shortage and high costs, meanwhile, are affecting local families.

Dora Rivas estimates she makes $600 a week running a child care facility out of her home in Watsonville. After paying her water, electricity, garbage collection and rent, she said she’s left with nothing.

“I work to survive,” Rivas said in Spanish. “Not for saving or for creating something better in the future.”

Based on what she’s seen, Rivas extends this to other child care providers throughout Santa Cruz County. “We’re in crisis,” she said.

Across the state, child care providers bear the brunt of a broken system in which there is little public and private investment or infrastructure to support them, said Linda Asato, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

The cost of providing child care is very high and unlike other businesses, child care providers have little flexibility to cut costs and bring in more revenue due to regulations on how many staff members must be present per child for a facility to be operational. These dynamics often make it financially unfeasible to work in the industry, providers say.

Locally, the result of that system is an acute child care workforce shortage across Santa Cruz County, which experts say is the largest problem facing the industry in both the county and state.

More than half of the children who need child care in the county do not have a spot, said Diane Munoz, coordinator at Santa Cruz County’s Childhood Advisory Council, a state body that collects data on and advocates for the child care industry in the county.

Munoz said that infant and toddler care specifically is a big problem for the county, with only 26% of demand being met for children under the age of 2. (The figure is 78% for preschool-aged children and 55% for school-aged children.)

Parents, faced with months- or years-long wait lists, are left to piece together care from family, friends or neighbors or change their work schedules, Munoz said.

Young families are all moving to Oregon and Washington, and part of that is cost of living but that includes child care. Most can’t afford to spend over $2,000 a month in child care. That’s a huge expense. It’s unfortunate that pushes Santa Cruz to be less of a young family town.

— Santa Cruz parent Sophie Slosberg

The cost of child care in the county is also a challenge for parents. Santa Cruz ranks in the top 2% of most expensive counties for child care across the country, said Christin Landivar, senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

The annual cost of center-based infant care — the most expensive kind of care — is nearly $20,100 per child in Santa Cruz County, according to data from the Child Care Resource and Referral Network. This puts Santa Cruz in the most expensive 25% of counties in California, according to Datashare Santa Cruz County, a data aggregation platform.

While the county’s comparatively high incomes mean infant care takes up a smaller share of many family’s budgets than other parts of the country, for lower-income families and those with more than one child, the high cost of child care is often a burden, Landivar said. Black and Latina women, often paid lower wages, also see child care eating up a larger share of their incomes, she said.

These issues extend beyond the county and are part of a broader national child care crisis, according to Hailey Gibbs, child care policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“It’s incredibly expensive for providers to be offering those services. It’s incredibly expensive for families to afford those services. And historically, there has not been much of a bridge between the two,” said Gibbs. “Providers can’t jack up prices for parents any more, because parents can’t afford to pay any more, and they also can’t spend any more out of pocket in order to meet the cost of actually providing care.”

Sophie Slosberg, the parent of a 4-year-old and a small-business owner, said her family is struggling to afford the high cost of child care in Santa Cruz.

A little over a year ago, Slosberg jumped full-time into the small kombucha business she started with a friend — in part because she thought setting her own hours would give her more time to spend with her son. However, the business has not yet turned a profit.

“Even when I was working [part-time], it was a stretch,” Slosberg said. “Now I’ve been working tons but not making money for a year and half, so we really decimated our savings and are living pretty frugally to make child care work.”

Her family pays over $20,000 a year for child care, between the preschool her son is in, the home-based care facility he attends some days of the week, and the one-off babysitting they sometimes need.

That will soon change since her son is old enough to qualify for transitional kindergarten, or TK, a bridge between preschool and kindergarten, especially for students considered too young by state mandates to enter kindergarten. Slosberg said she’d prefer to keep him in his current preschool, Rocking Horse Ranch, but the family cannot afford it so they’re pulling him out to put him in TK, which is free.

Sophie Slosberg, parent and business owner, working her Living Swell Kombucha stand at the Live Oak farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Slosberg said the high cost of child care in the county angers her and exacerbates the region’s already high cost of living, making it extremely hard for families, especially young ones, to get by.

“We have less and less young families in Santa Cruz that are able to survive and so young families aren’t moving to Santa Cruz, it’s all tech people with money or older retired people that are able to move here,” Slosberg said. “Young families are all moving to Oregon and Washington, and part of that is cost of living but that includes child care. Most can’t afford to spend over $2,000 a month in child care. That’s a huge expense. It’s unfortunate that pushes Santa Cruz to be less of a young family town.”

Experts say turnover was already high and the industry faced an existing shortage of child care workers prior to the pandemic. But, Landivar said, COVID-19 exacerbated the situation. Child care providers faced capacity limits and increased costs of supplies. Already operating on razor-thin profit margins, many providers were forced to shut down and the return to the industry has been slow. Currently, the industry has around 54,000 fewer child care workers nationwide than it had in February 2020, Gibbs said.

“Prior to the pandemic the workforce had been struggling to not only entice new early educators [to enter the field], but to retain them and to actually compensate them at a level that would allow them to earn a sustainable wage in our county,” said Munoz.

Watsonville provider Rivas says she’s seen other child care providers in her community close down because of the intense work, financial difficulties, and lack of support. She started in this work because she likes taking care of children and wanted to be able to take care of her daughter’s kids while also making money, so she quit her job at Walmart and opened her own day care.

But the work can be grueling, Rivas said. Providers are typically serving in multiple roles, taking care of children’s basic needs while also serving as teachers and psychologists. Rivas said she isn’t able to take breaks during the day and eats lunch on her feet, chasing after children. She starts her day at 5 a.m., before kids begin arriving at 6:30 a.m. When she closes at 4:30 p.m., the work doesn’t end. She’s usually still working for another few hours, cleaning up after spilled milk and urine.

“Child care providers need to be recognized for all that we are,” Rivas said.

Shannon Blake left her job in 2022 as an elementary school teacher because she wanted more flexibility and creativity in her work with kids, but also, Blake said, because she wanted to be part of the solution to the county’s child care shortage. She joined forces with another former teacher, Jordan Bemel, and they began Sprouts Aftercare.

This fall, Sprouts Aftercare will have four licensed facilities, all housed within schools throughout Santa Cruz, including Monarch Community School and Tierra Pacifica Charter School.

Child care providers Shannon Blake (left) and Jordan Bemel at one of their Sprouts Aftercare sites
Child care providers Shannon Blake (left) and Jordan Bemel at one of their Sprouts Aftercare sites at Monarch Community School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sprouts Aftercare charges $35 a day, or about $11 an hour. Blake estimates that she and her business partner both make between $30 to $40 an hour, though they have taken on a large amount of debt opening up additional locations.

Since Sprouts Aftercare is a larger operation with various facilities, it is able to serve more kids — up to 50 at its Monarch location and up to 30 at Tierra Pacifica — than a smaller home-based facility, she said.

Blake said the size of her operation provides the financial leeway that allows them to afford things like professional development for workers who might not meet all the early educator qualifications or allowing families who cannot afford the program to keep their kids in it for free. She said she’s not sure how smaller providers are able to stay afloat with high costs and little ability to increase revenue through caring for more kids.

This isn’t to say that money isn’t a problem for Sprouts Aftercare. Blake said her biggest stressor as a provider is financial, balancing the desire to put every penny into activities for the kids with the need to make a profit. Both she and Bemel also want to own homes one day, but Blake doubts the possibility of arriving at a level of financial stability working in this industry which would allow her to do so.

“It’s pretty impossible right now to get out of where we’re at,” Blake said. “Especially with the rising costs in the rental and housing market in Santa Cruz.”

Though both providing and paying for child care is expensive, Munoz said people need to understand it is essential for child and family well-being. “It’s an investment in children. And it’s a need for working families,” she said. “As a community, we really need to look at our own values in terms of how we want to or can support our working families by offering quality child care for their children. It becomes a values issue.”

People also need to understand child care as a collective problem, the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network’s Linda Asato said. She summarizes the current national mindset around child care as: “That’s the family’s problem.”

But, Munoz said, it’s not. The child care industry is central to the economic growth of other industries because it enables other kinds of work, she said. When the cost of child care is high, for example, it can become more cost efficient for a parent to quit their job and take care of children. This inhibits many parents, specifically women — who Landivar said typically end up being the parent who stays home — from the workforce.

Munoz said one way to aid the industry would be through addressing the problem of low wages. Some state programs that pay providers to care for children don’t fully cover the true cost of that care (overhead costs, wages, etc.). Munoz said she would like to see 100% of the cost of care covered for state-funded providers with no strings attached — such as an obligation to increase the number of slots available for kids — which would increase funding available to providers to pay better wages.

Asato said more money to create child care infrastructure — health care, professional development, help with marketing and enrollment — would all help reduce costs for child care providers, freeing up more of their budgets to increase wages. She said the state should also help fund the creation of a program to manage a substitute pool of child care workers, similar to substitute teacher programs in the public school system. In Santa Cruz, for example, the county manages an online platform called Frontline where teachers are able to log in and find subs.

Both Asato and Munoz say local taxpayers should also contribute to the solution through ballot initiatives similar to Measure A, a Santa Cruz city cannabis tax for youth and early childhood programs which was approved in fall 2022. Munoz said the Childhood Advisory Council is working on plans to conduct a countywide study to gather more data on the child care workforce as part of advocating for this kind of sales tax at a county level to help increase wages or provide a stipend to child care workers. The study is dependent on the approval of the council’s updated strategic plan, she said.

Children play math games at an elementary school
(Liz Moughon / Los Angeles Times)

Munoz and Asato agree that government officials at the local and state level in California understand and value the importance of child care. But, Asato said, they are juggling a variety of pressing issues with a limited budget, like natural disaster relief in the wake of storms and flooding the state saw this winter. This is why, Asato said, the private sector and businesses also need to be involved in the solution.

“They suffer from their own unstable workforce because of child care, so I think they should think about where they can contribute to this,” Asato said.

Contributions from the business community, Asato said, could look like anything from subsidizing child care for all employees — from custodians to C-suite executives — to providing facility space for child care providers, for which businesses could get tax credits.

“I think there’s a role for many different people,” Asato said. “And it will probably take all those pieces to be able to make this a stable option for families to have and that it’s supported both publicly and privately.”

Asato said this patchwork of solutions is necessary, especially in the absence of any transformational investment in the child care industry at the federal level.

Right now, Rivas said she needs help with cleaning, accounting and paperwork, technology and staying on top of benefits being offered to her as a child care provider. She’s trying to sign up for health care insurance through her business, but doesn’t have the time or energy to do so. Rivas said that many of the women she knows running child care facilities in her community are older women like her who need support to help alleviate the multiple stresses of the job.

“It’s almost a movement that has to be created here in California,” Asato said. “So that people can see [child care] is really important for our viability.”

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