As the Denton County economy continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea that workers aren’t excited about getting back in front of their computers, behind cash registers and on restaurant floors persists.
All industries are having trouble finding workers, trade specialists say, and the blame has landed on everything from federal stimulus funds to overly generous unemployment benefits to workers flexing newly developed negotiation models.
At a recent United Way of Denton County campaign kickoff breakfast, Phedra Redifer, the executive director of Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas, said the chief barrier keeping North Texans from going back to work is a simple need — affordable, accessible child care.
“It’s not just getting people into careers, but removing all the barriers in order for them to step into that space,” Redifer said. “We’ve talked about those who cannot go back to work because they don’t have access to child care. And they don’t have access to child care because the pandemic is shutting their doors, or they lost critical professionals in the child care industry because they needed to take care of their own children and elderly folks to buffer them from the effects of COVID.”
United Way Executive Director Gary Henderson explained how dire the situation got for working families.
“We lost 24.5%. Let’s just round it up — 25% of our child care businesses and access to child care,” Henderson said. “Affordable access to child care, at this point, is a barrier to going back to work.”
In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reported that, in Texas, child care costs more than in-state college tuition. During the pandemic, existing costs and difficulties worsened, and child care centers shuttered. For parents in low-wage jobs, the cost of child care before the pandemic pushed many onto welfare.
After the pandemic, parents whose best option are low-paying jobs can’t afford housing and child care.
But Redifer said relief is on the horizon for some families on the margins.
“Here in Texas, we have infused $4 billion into child care to shore up the child care issues that all of us are facing,” she said. “We work very, very closely with our Texas Workforce Commission in order to infuse child care relief funds into the state … Denton County was a significant recipient of a substantial amount of money that is going in to shore that exact issue.”
Last year, about 351 early learning programs and child care centers in Denton County received $25 million to help pay wages, a stopgap measure to keep doors open and make their rent payments, Redifer said.
“In 2022, that number increased to $150 million in Denton County specifically for the early learning programs,” Redifer said. “And we understand how critical it is also for us to all change the narrative around what a child care professional is. It’s not a person who’s just babysitting. And I think if we’ve learned anything, we need to look at this industry as a professional industry that is really tasked and charged with caring for our most precious asset that we have, which is our children.”
Redifer said Workforce Solutions has partnered with a child care provider that will offer affordable services in 14 counties, including Denton.
Henderson and Redifer said both of their agencies are inviting business partners to join Workforce Solutions to build affordable child care resources. Redifer said the wave of the future is creating on-site child care at companies.
Melanie Rubin, a policy consultant and early childhood advocate, was a panelist in the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ series about legislative priorities going into the 88th Texas session. Rubin said the child care system was weak and disjointed before the pandemic exposed it nationally.
“Parents struggle to find accessible, affordable quality child care while the child care workforce is shrinking, due to the decades of low pay, virtually no benefits and a lack of respect for the critical nature of the work,” she said. “Why is that the case? Why is child care having such a tough time with this issue? Plain and simple, the business model is broken. It costs more to produce quality child care than most parents can afford. Parents are completely maxed out in what they can do to pay for child care.”
Rubin said the best and fastest way to connect Texas parents with child care is to subsidize it. One state has really prioritized child care, but it’s a state that might surprise most people.
“Alabama actually just came out and gave every early educator a $12,000 bonus a year because they realize if they do not do something drastic, it is foreseeable that the child care workforce will collapse. And that will really hurt their economy,” Rubin said. “And other states are doing some incredible things as far as reducing parent copays, and really kind of looking at the whole system. New Mexico is doing a great job. Even North Dakota. The governor of North Dakota, which is not so comparable population-wise to Texas, just came out and said they’re gonna invest about $80 million into the workforce, because if they don’t address it, they’re really worried about what’s going to happen throughout the state.”
Henderson, who also serves on the Workforce Solutions board, said he hopes to see brisk spending of the earmarked funds. While $150 million is a lot of money, North Central Texas is exploding, population-wise. As more families move in, the need for accessible child care only grows.
“My dream is that we run out of the money because we’ve spent it all on this,” Redifer said.
“I want us to spend it in Denton County,” Henderson said.