Pennsylvania’s Child Care and Staffing Crisis, by the Numbers

A roughly $2 trillion social spending plan could transform the industry, but right now providers are struggling to attract and retain workers.

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The Willow School in Montgomery County is unable to serve as many children as it could because of a staffing shortage. THOMAS HENGGE / Philadelphia Inquirer

by Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA

HARRISBURG — As a roughly $2 trillion social spending plan moves through Congress, transformational change could be on the horizon for child care in Pennsylvania and across the country. But now, an industry pivotal to the state’s economic recovery is facing severe staffing shortages.

Providers are struggling to attract and retain workers because of low wages, Spotlight PA recently reported, and the situation has ripple effects for the state’s economy, as parents shuffle their work schedules to deal with shorter hours and face tough decisions about how to care for their children without losing a paycheck.

Here are the figures that stand out, and what they show:

Closures

  • About 6,800 licensed child care providers were operating in Pennsylvania as of late November.
  • 1,000-plus licensed child care providers closed from March 2020 through October 2021, according to data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services.
  • 796 licensed child care providers opened during the same time period.

What it means: Advocates for child care providers say many more providers would have closed if not for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief. Still, the recovery is uneven. Some parts of the state lost more providers than others, and some types of programs — small ones, based in private homes — saw a larger net loss than larger child care centers.

Staffing shortages

  • 6.1 million people were employed in nonfarm jobs in Pennsylvania in October 2019, according to jobs data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • 5.8 million people were employed in nonfarm jobs in Pennsylvania in October 2021, according to preliminary jobs data.
  • That’s a 5% decrease over two years.
  • 48,100 people were employed in Pennsylvania child care jobs in October 2019, before the pandemic.
  • 44,000 people were employed in child care jobs in October 2021, according to preliminary jobs data.
  • That’s an 8.5% decrease over two years.

What it means: Child care providers say they can’t hire enough employees to meet the current demand, and they’ve had to close classrooms, reduce hours, and serve fewer children.

A survey released in September of more than 1,100 child care providers in Pennsylvania found there were nearly 26,000 children on waiting lists. More than 34,000 additional children could be served if providers were fully staffed.

A classroom not in use at The Willow School, which is serving about half as many kids as it used to because of a staffing shortage. THOMAS HENGGE / Philadelphia Inquirer

High costs, low wages

What it means: Child care providers operate on thin margins, which makes it difficult for them to raise wages and ease staffing shortages. At the same time, costs for parents are high. And even though low-income families are eligible for government subsidies, that assistance doesn’t cover the cost of care, child care advocates say. That perpetuates a broken business model.

Federal help

  • Roughly $525 million in federal relief was earmarked for the Pennsylvania child care industry under legislation that passed in 2020.
  • The American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March under President Joe Biden, sets aside $1.2 billion more.
  • Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, recently approved by the U.S. House, comes with a roughly $2 trillion price tag that, among other commitments, promises to lower child care costs for families and raise wages for workers.

What it means: Previous federal assistance helped programs stay in business as they dealt with shutdown orders, drops in enrollment, and new cleaning and safety requirements. Child care advocates expect providers will use some of the latest relief money to offer higher pay or better benefits for workers. But recruiting challenges could remain, and providers fear the money is only a temporary fix.

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