Parents may be returning to work, but early education teachers aren’t.
As the job market and economy inches toward normalcy, even in hard-hit sectors such as food service and tourism, child care centers are struggling to make ends meet. Rep. Vance Aloupis and Children’s Nest Day Schools President Tripp Crouch said that should worry business leaders and lawmakers as much as it does parents.
“If the pandemic showed us anything, it shows that early learning is also about the worker. So, as we saw in my community, 85% of child care centers closed their doors across Miami-Dade County at the height of the pandemic, leaving moms and dads struggling to find (a) place to put their children so that they can be on the frontlines fighting COVID. And the challenges have only increased,” Aloupis told the crowd at the Florida Chamber’s Future of Florida Forum.
Crouch said the biggest challenge is finding teachers to put in classrooms. He compared the industry’s business model to commercial airlines — the first 100 seats cover the cost of the flight, and the last 20 are where they turn a profit.
Classrooms that had 10 or 11 children pre-pandemic now have seven or eight because of staffing issues.
“That’s all the margins our industry has,” he said.
Aloupis, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Early Learning & Elementary Education Subcommittee, stressed that these employees are teachers who are not being paid a wage commensurate with their responsibilities.
“I say that very intensely because these are teachers — they are not babysitters, they are not day care workers. These are teachers,” he said. “I want to see anyone in this room spend 12 hours a day with 18 4-year-olds. Think about it. These are angels on earth.
“The reality is this: the rate for paying these teachers is somewhere between $11 and $12 an hour across the state. So, people are literally looking down the street and seeing that Chick-fil-A is paying $17 an hour, paying for your college, paying for all these benefits. And they’re having to make an economic decision, saying ‘I really want to go to the classroom, I really want to be an educator, but financially I can’t do it.”
The end result for the typical child care facility is a mile-long waiting list of families hoping to get their kids into the classroom.
“Teachers in my industry aren’t paid enough and it’s something we’ve got to address. It’s something we had to address pre-pandemic. But I think with the school closures and the shrinkage in demand (from the pandemic) these teachers left our industry (and) are simply not coming back,” he said.
The teachers who have stuck around are “working extra hours, skipping breaks, they’re taking on extra shifts. They’re doing a fantastic job,” he said. “But those last few percent, our industry has to find a way to attract new people to fill the demand and get people back to work.”
Aloupis, who also leads the nonprofit Children’s Movement of Florida, pitted the teacher shortage against the equally dire workforce troubles in state prisons. There are hundreds of unfilled positions in state corrections facilities because the industry cannot find the staff to fill those jobs. Aloupis said he asked the board at Florida State Prison in Raiford what investments the state could make to ensure fewer people end up behind bars. The answer, he said, was funding for early childhood education.
“If we can’t figure out the labor shortage issue in your industry,” Aloupis said to Crouch, “then the rest of the industries cannot operate the way that they should.”
Crouch agreed, and implored business leaders in attendance to keep the challenges facing the child care industry top of mind — even if only to empathize with their employees.
“I’ve had many, many talks with my parents. And I’ve given them letters to take to their work and say ‘listen, the school that my kids have been at for three years — he loves his teachers and we love the school and we want to stay there — but I can’t be at work at 7 o’clock because they don’t open until 7 o’clock.’ So I would ask business leaders to be flexible with your staff and your employees,” he said.
Aloupis also urged flexibility and asked employers to think long-term.
“If you don’t think about this issue today as something that’s going to impact your bottom line in 15 years, heaven help you,” he said.