Barbara Mitchell opened the Aurora Lights Childcare Center at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in 2018. The church, in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley, offered an ideal space and discounted rent. Church families donated thousands of dollars to get it up and running.
“(Childcare) centers seemed to be coming and going a lot for many different reasons,” Mitchell said. “We thought maybe it would be more steady if the church actually took it and ran with it.”
But Aurora Lights lasted less than five years. Its permanent closure — and the temporary closure of Gold Creek Child Development Center — have made Juneau’s long-standing childcare shortage even worse.
A fifth of Alaska’s licensed childcare providers have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Labor. Now, childcare workers, advocates and state legislators are calling for a collaborative approach to rebuilding the workforce.
Aurora Lights closes amid labor shortage
The pandemic forced Aurora Lights and other childcare centers to close for months. Once they reopened, they were competing for a shrinking pool of workers. Like other centers in Juneau, Aurora Lights raised its hourly wages to try to retain employees. It also increased the cost of tuition.
“It was our written policy to go up 3% every year,” Mitchell said. “But after a point, I just don’t see the parents paying more and more and more. Somewhere that has to quit.”
Hiring at Aurora Lights had been a challenge even before the pandemic. Background checks took two weeks to process, and by then, most applicants had found other jobs. Staffing ratios required by the state made it especially challenging to meet parents’ needs.
Finally, in October, Aurora Lights told families they’d be shutting down the coming March, when its administrator was set to leave. A drop in enrollment and loss of staff after the announcement forced them to close even sooner.
Kristi McGuire is the pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. She said the shutdown was the culmination of ongoing hiring challenges.
“When you’re paying $35 an hour and you’re still not able to staff, something else needs to be addressed,” McGuire said.
Giving providers a seat at the table
McGuire said she’d like to see childcare providers work together to identify problems and come up with solutions. A bill in the Alaska State Legislature could help make that happen.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields introduced a bill that would give childcare providers the ability to collectively bargain with the state’s health department. Fields said the idea is to give providers a voice when the state makes decisions about funding and regulations.
“The state Department of Health administers ongoing streams of federal funding and regulates the childcare sector,” he said. “I think the department should be very sensitive to input from the sector so that whatever they’re contemplating in terms of revised training or safety requirements, they should listen to sector input up front.”
Training requirements make it harder to hire employees at all levels. Administrators must earn a certain amount of college credit in early childhood development. Administrators and caregivers are required to do 24 hours of training each year. Usually, that training is unpaid and can’t be completed on the job.
Fields said a collective bargaining system would increase provider input about those kinds of requirements before they’re put into place.
“Historically, we’ve kind of pushed training without any way of rewarding people or keeping people,” he said. “There haven’t been sufficient financial incentives for people to get training and stay in the sector.”
Fields said more and more state leaders are recognizing the economic impact of childcare shortages.
“When we’re a place where people can afford a house, the education system is at least decent, and childcare is available, people will move here rather than moving to places where those things are less affordable or less available,” he said. “That is a very sound economic development strategy.”
The bill would also establish a childcare provider fund, which would give financial support to providers through grants. A version of the bill passed the House last year but got stuck in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
The next hearing on the bill is set for Friday, Feb. 10.
A local model
Juneau’s city government took a similar approach to its local childcare shortage in 2018, when the Assembly appointed a childcare committee made up of providers, school district leaders and Assembly members.
Blue Shibler, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children, was on that committee. She spoke to the House Labor and Commerce committee in support of Fields’ bill.
“You can’t pay a worthy wage and also make it affordable for parents,” she said in an interview. “That brought about the realization that had been talked about across the nation for decades: that there needs to be a public subsidy of childcare.”
The committee recommended the city create a loan fund for childcare startups. That program still exists through the Juneau Economic Development Council.
The city also gives direct subsidies to childcare providers. Mitchell and McGuire said Aurora Lights wouldn’t have stayed open as long as it did without them.
“I think, prior to these two centers closing, those operating subsidies cushioned Juneau a little bit from the effects of the pandemic,” Shibler said.
As the industry deals with the labor shortage, Shibler said it needs help from the state. Otherwise, workers will keep opting for jobs that pay better, provide benefits, are less stressful and have fewer unpaid training requirements than caregiving.
“To make childcare jobs attractive again, and make people want to come to them and be able to afford to do them, we need a sizable investment,” Shibler said. “And it’s possibly one that a municipal government can’t afford on its own.”
As legislators decide whether to take on that investment, many Juneau parents are stuck on waitlists, hoping to claim spots at the handful of centers left.