Child-care cost proving to be key factor in post-pandemic return to work | Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta

Child-care cost proving to be key factor in post-pandemic return to work

COCHRANE— Child-care and the important role it will play in getting Albertans back to work was a key component of Alberta Budget 2021.

Budget 2021 included $72 million for the child-care Safe Restart federal government program and $23 million for critical worker benefits for child intervention and child-care programming. The Ministry of Children’s Services has also reallocated $28 million in supports to assist child-care centres in safely re-opening. This includes $11 million in federal support to be directed to child-care providers.

Budget 2021 has kept the Ministry of Children’s Services operating expenses at $1.7 billion in 2021-22— This includes $386 million dedicated to child-care. The amount dedicated to child-care in the province has fallen since 2019 which saw $402 million dedicated to child-care and $390 million in 2020.

“Child-care is essential for Alberta’s economic recovery. Through improving access to accessible and quality child-care, the ministry supports Alberta’s economy by creating employment opportunities and supporting parents to participate in the workforce,” says the budget. 

Cochrane mom Tara Carey said it was a struggle to find child-care in town, explaining that it took her about six months to find appropriate care for her six-month-old son in August 2019. 

“I had to change my schedule around for the first couple months he was in daycare just to make sure that someone could be there to drop him off and pick him up,” Carey said. “We could only afford for him to go to daycare three times a week. I had to take two days off a week to stay home because we just couldn’t afford the child-care options that were offered to us.”

Carey works as a registered nurse and the shift work complicated finding a suitable home for her son due the nature of her job. If her family had been unsuccessful in finding daycare in Cochrane she would have had to switch to night shifts so she could be with her son during the day and her husband could be with him at night.

“It wasn’t feasible for one of us to not work,” Carey said. “We would have had to find either cheaper alternatives … Or I would have had to change my shifts completely.”

Carey estimates that her family spends about $17,000 a year in child-care for her son. She considers herself fortunate because the cost has remained the same during COVID-19.

“I love my job but the cost factor of what I make versus what I pay in terms of child-care, on top of your regular household bills and everything else, it’s substantial,” Carey said.

There are three key components when it comes to child-care— Access, quality of care and affordability, said Melissa Engdahl, community resource worker and chair of the Town of Cochrane equity and inclusion committee.

“The greatest amount of subsidies, the greatest amount of focus on quality and care should be given to child-care facilities,” Engdahl said.  “From a municipal perspective we want to make sure our policies and procedures aren’t getting in the way of people being able to live their lives."

Cochrane council passed a bylaw in February 2020 to reduce the red tape child-care providers faced. Under the new bylaw day home operators are now allowed to hire outside workers and are not required to have designated drop-off or pick-up locations at their residence. The new regulations permit day homes to accommodate six children at any time, instead of six specific children a day. 

The change created an essential opportunity in the community because day homes can serve as a source of income while providing a needed service in the community.

In the time since the bylaw was approved the Town has seen an increase in the number of child-care spaces available in Cochrane, but the cost of child-care still remains high.

“People are choosing between whether they go to work or whether they stay home,” Engdahl said.

In Cochrane, a living wage for a family of four is between $15.74 and $18.67 an hour or making $19.70 an hour or more. 

The average cost of child-care for a 4-year-old in Cochrane in a regulated day home is roughly $1,000 monthly. Private, non-regulated day homes that are not eligible for subsidies average around $915 monthly, while day care centres typically cost roughly $1,350 monthly.

“The pandemic itself impacted different people differently in our community and that’s what we need to drill down to,” Engdahl said.

According to the province as of Feb. 12, 96 per cent of daycares, preschools and out-of-school care programs (2,739 programs) are open, but only 58,003, or 50 per cent, of the 115,285 spaces are filled.

A report from Statistics Canada released in July 2020 indicated that about 60 per cent of children from ages zero to five needed formal or informal child-care in 2019. The need for child-care during COVID-19 dropped to 15 per cent in Alberta in 2020. Other provinces such as Quebec and Ontario had five per cent of children in child-care, while the prairie province Saskatchewan and Manitoba saw 20 and 16 per cent respectively. Statistics Canada had about 32,000 people used to generate the data.

Angel Wings Daycare and Montessori Preschool have felt firsthand the impact of COVID-19, said owner Divya Hebbic.

Children are slowly returning to the classroom, but the building remains below full capacity with 26 children enrolled, the majority of which are not at the building full-time. The facility is licensed for up to 46 students at one-time.

The pre-school typically runs as a three-hour program in the morning or afternoon, said Jocelyn Taylor assistant program supervisor and director of Montessori studies at Angel Wings, and many parents wanted to be able to leave their children in one place for the day— Under the pre-school model, this was not possible.

“We need daycares. People need to go to work. We’re an essential service,” Taylor said. 

Angel Wing's fee for full-time attendance five days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a child under three is $1,425 a month and $1,175 a month for children three and over full-time. The pre-school cost for children under three is $700 and fo$550 for children aged three and older.

The child fees for the facility reflect the time, energy and costs that go into the children, Taylor said. 

“Your child is nurtured, your child is loved, your child is cherished,” Taylor said. “As early childhood educators, we do everything that we can to make it a very positive experience for your child, which sets them up for the rest of their life.”

The Provincial Government requires children under three years old have six children to one adult, when they are three to four years old there are eight children to an adult, when the four and older there are ten children to an adult. 

The teacher's salaries are set by the Alberta Government wage scale based on the level of a teacher's education. The Government provides a top-up to these funds ranging between $2.14 to $6.62. The average wage, including the top-up for Child Development Assistants is $18.04, Child Development Workers is $20.96 and Child Development Supervisor for $25.18.

Taylor noted the wage top-ups have remained unchanged for several years.

The costs of running the daycare have ballooned during COVID-19, Hebbic said, thanks in part to the increased funds needed for enhanced cleaning protocols, personal protective equipment and decreased enrolment. These costs come on top of typical costs such as utilities, property taxes the mortgage.

Many parents are still not comfortable sending their children to daycare along with mandatory cohorts limiting which children can play together.

“Just for the safety of the children and the staff we really can’t take any more kids,” Taylor said. “That keeps the revenue down to.”

Maribel Farias has experienced both sides of the child-care coin, as a working mom and Early Childhood educator Level Three child-care provider.

“It’s funny because I’m an educator and I can’t afford child-care for my own son,” Farias said. “It’s like a doctor who can’t sign for a kid's surgery. They have to stay sick because I can’t afford it, and I can’t give my son early education because I couldn’t afford it.”

Additional federal and provincial support is needed for early childhood education, she said, along with subsidizing child-care for two and three-year-olds. 

“That is the time of development when they need the most stimuli,” Farias said. “If you can provide the opportunity for educating young children who can easily learn, I think the government should put more into those first years.”

The provincial government can play an important role in those and can impact generations to come.

“Doing cuts in health and education I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Farias said. “It affects people’s lives and communities.”

Farias is a mom to a two-and-a-half-year-old son who has been with her when working at the daycare, in a different classroom. The Farias' originally wanted two children, but could not afford to have a second after considering child-care costs.

Speaking as a parent, Farias said, without child-care it would be impossible for her to return to work— This is a story many of the parents she encounters share.

Farias hails from Chile originally and has no family in Canada. Her husband is from Ontario and also has no family in the Cochrane area, so, they must rely on child-care to work.

“Providing quality child-care is very costly,” Farias said. “Children shouldn’t have to miss out because your parents can’t afford it.”

Maureen Topp Manager of Licenced Programs at the Boys & Girls Club of Cochrane & Area said their Family Day Home Agency (Play Days) serves as a unique home-based child-care option in Cochrane that can also be more affordable than facility-based programs. The non-profit is centred on the mandate to ensure every family that calls Cochrane home has access to safe, quality child-care. Families registered with the program who experience a financial challenge can receive help finding potential aid. This includes potential child-care subsidies and exploring potential Alberta Works funding that is available.

The provincial government can play an important role in child-care accessibility that can impact generations to come.

The Boys & Girls Club of Cochrane & Area have fees ranging from $500 for part to $825 for full time Kindergarten children. For children requiring out of school care in Grades 1 to Grade 6 monthly fees range from $190 to $460 per child based on whether before, before and after, or only after care is needed. Transportation to and from school is available at a cost of $75 for one way or $120 for two-way transport monthly per child.

Play Days Family Day Homes (a nonprofit program of the Boys & Girls Club of Cochrane & Area) sees average childcare fees of $1000-$1200 monthly on average for full time care with a rate ranging from $56-$60 / day for Part Time or Daily Rates. Since Family Day Home Educators are contracted the rates can vary between educators based on a range of factors including experience, education and program specialization.

It has been more challenging to operate this year because program spaces have been limited in capacity, Topp said, but Play Day fees remain unchanged for parents.

For out-of-school care staff also spend time cleaning the space, organizing toys, planning activities and training. Training can include working with children with exceptional needs, program planning, managing challenging behaviours, effective communication and more.

“We work really hard to offer a wide range of professional development to our staff,” Topp said. “That is a big cost of operating our program.”

It has been interesting to see the impact of COVID-19 on day homes, Topp said, and many have seen families leave care because they are working from home or unemployed.

While the centre faces lower attendance rates, operating costs have increased exponentially due to public health measures.

Finding appropriate care for her two children has proven challenging, said mom Lisa Arsenault, especially because she had a child under two years old.

“Going back to work after mat leave is difficult anyway with that under two age group,” Arsenault said. “It’s just a shortage of space and not enough day homes to be able to take that age.”

When she returned to work the first time and was later after her second child, she encountered the same issue— This time though it was made more challenging as the children would have to be separated into different daycares.

Arsenault was working as a manager in addictions and mental health for 14 years. Her second maternity leave was set to end in July 2020 but her program lost funding just at the beginning of COVID-19 and she was laid off.

At that point the province was amid the COVID-19 pandemic and finding a job has proven to be incredibly difficult— This has been complicated by the need for child-care.

“Child-care is roughly $1,000 a child. So, for the two of them to go into child-care is $2,000 a month for us,” Arsenault said. “To go back to work I would have to be making at least a certain salary range to afford that extra $2,000.”

The barriers in place including lack of timing, options and cost would at times make her feel like her search was an impossible one.

“I can’t afford to go back to work, because I can’t afford child-care,” Arsenault said. “But, then we're also stuck in a situation of being laid off and not having a job and also needing income.”

The situation leaves her family in a difficult position, she said, and many families are stuck in a similar place.

“We’re in a position where either way we have to come up with that money … We still have our regular life bills. So, if I’m not working, we have to come up with that money,” Arsenault said. “It puts you in a position of instead of having a choice of choosing to be home with my kids or I want to be going back to work. It puts you in a position where that choice is taken away from you.”

On Feb. 24 the province announced relief for working parents with the one-time payment of $561 Working Parents Benefit. The Working Parents Benefit is anticipated to see $108 million go to families for daycare. This includes licenses or unlicensed daycares, day homes, out-of-school care or preschool from April to December 2020.

Families eligible for the Working Parents Benefit include those who have children in any form of child-care, have a household annual income of $100,000 or less and paid for three months of child-care between April 1 to Dec. 31, 2020. Receipts must be provided.

Kemp, C., 2021. Child-care cost proving to be key factor in post-pandemic return to work. Cochrane TODAY, [online] Available at: <https://www.cochranetoday.ca/local-news/child-care-cost-proving-to-be-key-factor-in-post-pandemic-return-to-work-3526517> [Accessed 15 March 2021].