OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma lawmakers worked to understand the state’s worker shortage on Tuesday, during an interim study organized by Senator Carrie Hicks. Analysts shared four theories as to why there are roadblocks, including federal unemployment disincentivizing workers, COVID-19 anxiety, low quality jobs and lack of child care.
Oklahoma’s Child Care Resource and Referral Agency said even before the pandemic, over half of Oklahomans lived in a child care desert. Now, it’s nearly impossible for families to get into a child care facility.
“Lack of child care was an important driver for women exiting the work force as both schools and child care providers closed and many left work to care for children,” said the agency’s executive director, Paula Koos. “We have many, many child care deserts in the state of Oklahoma.”
During the interim study Tuesday, Koos said the global pandemic hit the child care industry hard and had an effect on working parents. Some facilities closed for a brief period of time, others didn’t reopen at all.
“Facilities have struggled to provide care. Enrollment was down making it more difficult to finance operations with fixed costs remaining the same but income reduced,” said Koos.
Koos said child care facilities had to close the entire operations or just a classroom because of COVID-19 quarantining protocols and exposed employees could not come back to work until they had been in isolation for the appropriate amount of time.
“Remember that most child care workers in Oklahoma earned $21,480 in 2019. In addition, most child care workers have neither paid leave nor health insurance,” she said.
The executive director said childcare providers have received an extra $5 per day per child in subsidy payments and they haven’t had to receive copays from their parents. Workers have also received sustainability grants, but Koos said that’s still not enough to help a struggling industry.
“For some, unemployment compensation was a more stable income during the pandemic,” she said.
Koos said even if the child care is available, it is often unaffordable. She said the average cost of center-based care for infants in Oklahoma is $150.09 a week. Home-based care is $121.20 a week. She said it’s especially difficult for overnight or weekend workers to find care at the right times.
“Looking for care during non-traditional hours, meaning 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m.? Good luck,” Koos said.
The industry is also having trouble keeping staff on board and bringing new staff in.
“Fingerprint and background checks that can often take four weeks or longer prevent an employee from being hired in a timely manner. They can’t wait for a paycheck and move on to other employment,” she said.
She also stated Oklahoma has some of the most stringent licensing regulations in the entire country.
“If you take care of even one child, who is not related to you, you must be licensed. Unless you’re caring for that child in their own home,” said Koos.
The executive director said economic research generally confirms child care subsidies increase the likelihood of low income workers going back to work, and many low-skilled workers will opt to work if they have help paying for child care.
Koos said if the state wants a stable child care industry and parents back at work, every effort must be made to support a living wage with benefits for child care employees, and child care facilities must have the ability to sustain their business from their income,” she said.
Koos noted her agency doesn’t know how much off-the-book childcare is happening in the state, because there’s no way to track it.