Every morning, weather permitting, the staff and students of Little Rays of Sunshine Daycare, in West Harlem, walk to a park about a block away. Owner Christina Collado, her husband, and two assistants manage the logistical feat of transporting 11 babies and toddlers—including seven under age two—from a third-floor walk-up and down the street in four double strollers.
Embarking on this daily excursion with just three helpers is a challenge that reflects the broader difficulties daycare owners like Collado have faced as a result of lockdowns enforced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Two emergency grants disbursed during the height of the crisis allowed Collado to pay essential bills, but earnings she had saved since opening her business in 2014 were wiped out, and she had a hard time bringing workers back.
“It’s not that they didn’t love the job, but they could make more through unemployment benefits,” she said.
Collado and her staff did not struggle alone; employment in New York’s private child care sector fell 35 percent in the second quarter of 2020. Now, according to a report published this year by the New York State Department of Labor, employment numbers in the industry have nearly rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, yet across the state, licensed child care programs have the capacity to serve only about half of children who potentially require care. Moreover, the average hourly pay for child care workers in New York—$16.92 as of last year—is just slightly above minimum wage, and frequent turnover is common.
Against this backdrop, Little Rays of Sunshine submitted by the September 15 deadline one of over 10,000 applications so far approved for a new staff retention and recruitment program announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul in May. Intended to “bolster New York’s child care workforce,” the Workforce Retention Grant provides bonuses for current child care workers ranging from $2,300 to $3,000 in addition to awards for recruitment efforts. The initiative is funded through a combination of unused pandemic-era federal grants with impending expiration dates and state contributions. As of September 20, the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) had awarded approximately $254 million of the $500 million that was budgeted for the program.
Collado said the additional income “might be nothing to others, but it is a lot to us. I wish I could give my staff that extra money even without the grant because they work day in and day out.” She is encouraging her employees and other child care workers to write notes of appreciation to Hochul’s office. “I want her to know how much this is going to help us. In order for our voices to be heard, we have to write letters from the heart,” she added.
Katie Albitz is a member of the Empire State Campaign for Child Care, and said that the high volume of applications received in the two-month period between the grant’s launch in July and the mid-September cutoff demonstrates “just how desperately sustainable funding for the child care sector is needed.” Albitz encouraged daycares to apply in a video message on social media and observed a range of opinions from providers on the impact of the program.
“Some people have said that this grant allowed them to keep people from walking out the door to take higher paying jobs for the time being, but others feel that it was not enough. You can’t base budgets on temporary solutions, and we know that the need is permanent,” she said.
The Workforce Retention Grant is a one-time opportunity for now, and the entire child care sector is facing general uncertainty over the next year as streams of federal Covid-19 recovery aid that helped stabilize the industry run out. In an email response regarding expectations for funding in this context, OCFS pointed to the state’s investment of $7.6 billion over the next four years, which will emphasize increasing affordability for families, and added that the agency “continually advocates for additional federal child care funding.” Albitz, commenting on these plans, noted that there is not yet a permanent commitment in place at the state level to support the child care workforce that New York parents rely on.
Lily Sandlin, a mother of two, has sent both of her children to Little Rays of Sunshine. She recalled working from home without child care when Collado was forced to close in the early months of the pandemic.
“Oh it was terrible, and I felt so much guilt from both sides—as a mother and in my job,” Sandlin said. Once public health restrictions eased in the summer of 2020, a group of parents asked Collado to consider reopening with masking guidelines in place, and when she agreed, Sandlin dropped her son off with gratitude.
“I cannot do the job I love without knowing they are there,” she said.“They are taking care of—without question—our most precious commodity, but we have a society that has decided what they do is not as valuable as people working in finance or law, for example.”
Collado is not sure when she will be able to hire another team member, but the knowledge that families like Sandlin’s depend on her is motivation to persevere, even with the constant stress of managing her business. Just a few weeks ago, she came to work with a horrible headache, and her husband suggested she take a break. She remembers responding: “We have to go to the park. Who is going to push the fourth stroller?”