$400-a-month pandemic bonuses were life-changing for child care workers. That’s over.

a woman poses on a wooden deck, at a daycare
Destiny Vansickle is a teacher in the 2-year-old classroom at A Place to Grow. Thanks to the bonuses and wage increases she received in the pandemic, she was able to buy her first house. (Andrea Hsu/NPR)

For almost a year, early childhood teachers at A Place to Grow in Oak Hill, W.Va., enjoyed a $200 bonus in every paycheck just for coming to work.

“Just be here, show up, don’t call off, be on time,” the center’s owner Melissa Colagrosso told employees.

Funded through $24 billion in pandemic relief Congress approved in 2021, the bonuses made life a lot easier for the center’s teachers and staff.

But with the expiration of the federal money on September 30 came the end to those bonuses.

“All of the staff have taken a $400-a-month pay cut,” says Colagrosso.

Now, she worries about how her employees will get by. She expects some of them will soon leave her for jobs elsewhere.

A pandemic lifeline disappears

It’s no exaggeration to say government money saved child care in the pandemic.

As part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan, Congress approved a total of $39 billion for child care, an unprecedented level of spending aimed at ensuring essential workers could go to work. The majority — $24 billion — was directed toward stabilizing child care centers and home-based daycares, to guarantee they’d remain open and staffed.

Colagrosso, who opened A Place to Grow 28 years ago, poured the money into wages and bonuses, repairs and a new HVAC system, playground equipment for what had been an empty field, and even a bus to take older kids to and from school and, in the summers, on field trips.

a group of children and an adult play inside
Melissa Colagrosso founded A Place to Grow child care center in Oak Hill, W.Va., 28 years ago. In the pandemic, federal relief dollars allowed her to raise wages and give bonuses, offer paid sick leave and make repairs and improvements at the center. (Andrea Hsu/NPR)

Now that the September 30 deadline for spending the pandemic funds has passed, she and other child care providers are grappling with what they have to take back.

“We’re going to have to slow down payroll. We have to cut everywhere we can cut,” Colagrosso says.

In addition to curbing bonuses, she has ended paid sick leave for part-time staff and says she will end it for full-time staff soon. She’s eliminated a floating position, someone to help out wherever extra help was needed.

No longer will she be giving $1 an hour raises every year, as she has for the past three. She may resort to larger child-to-teacher ratios, which she says would affect quality.

Affording child care a problem up and down the wage scale

Running her center in a rural, low-income part of West Virginia has never been easy. Colagrosso says there were many months when she struggled to make payroll and found herself at the bank asking for a loan.

Close to three-quarters of the families she serves fall below 85% of West Virginia’s median income, qualifying them for state subsidies. Even those who pay full tuition can hardly afford the cost, particularly those with several young children. They worry that with pandemic relief funds gone, Colagrosso may have to raise her rates.

a woman pushes a child on a swing
Katelyn Vandal is now director of A Place to Grow. Vandal’s mother Melissa Colagrosso founded the center when Katelyn was 3, in part because her daughter’s daycare had shut down. (Andrea Hsu/NPR)

“We’d either have to work part-time — one of us — or one of us quit our job, which we can’t really do,” says Brittany Smith, a civil engineer. She and her husband have 1-year-old twins and a 12-year old.

Bonuses were life-changing but short-lived

Colagrosso’s immediate concerns are over her staff.

The pandemic bonuses proved life-changing for teachers including Destiny Vansickle, who saved enough money for a down payment on a two-bedroom house next to her sister — a “forever home” for her infant and her 4-year-old.

“It’s been really nice to have our own place and having my boys being able to have our own yard,” she says, adding that the low-income housing they left had no yard to play in.

a woman in a green sweatshirt and glasses
Tena Gee has worked at A Place to Grow for 13 years. Now that pandemic bonuses are over, she is considering leaving the field for a job that would pay more. (Andrea Hsu/NPR)

Tena Gee, who’s worked at A Place to Grow for 13 years, says the bonuses allowed her to give her 9- and 12-year-old daughters Christmas for the first time — new bikes, new kayaks, a baby doll with its own bassinet.

“Just being able to do anything on my own for them — not having to lean on somebody — it’s just a feeling you can’t really describe,” she says.

She also decided to do something for herself. She was tired of driving used cars that broke down all the time, so she bought herself a brand new car.

“I took on bills that I was finally able to afford because of the extra money,” she says. “It felt like the work I was doing was finally being acknowledged. Like I feel like my pay matches the hard work I put in.”

But that satisfaction was short-lived. Without the extra $400 a month in bonuses, Gee is already behind on her car payment.

“I guess maybe it was our fault for getting used to it, thinking maybe it was going to be more than temporary,” she says.

Now, she’s considering finding a better-paying job elsewhere.

Child care not a priority

Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to extend child care stabilization funding for five years, but the measure doesn’t have support from Republicans.

West Virginia and other states are trying to help out, finding money in their budget surpluses to alleviate some of the strain.

Still, Colagrosso is facing deeper cuts.

“You do the math like any other business, and the math doesn’t add up,” she says. “This is what I need. This is what I’m bringing in. It’s not there.”

Colagrosso says she used to think there was a lack of understanding among elected leaders about the value of child care — a lack of understanding that without affordable options, people can’t go to work.

“[Then] the pandemic hit and all this money came, and I thought, ‘Oh, they did understand all along. They understood. They just didn’t prioritize it,'” she says.

And now, after an all-too-brief of recognition of child care as critical — not just for families, but for the economy — she’s afraid the same is true once again.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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