Southwest of Lansing, child care provider D’Lynn Smith might count herself fortunate.
She’s still open, even as hundreds of day care homes and centers around the state are closed.
But where her Acres of Play child care center in Charlotte is normally filled with 70 children from infants to age 12, she’s down to 34 kids. She cut her staff from 12 to five, while her monthly utility, liability insurance and water bills exceeding $1,000 continue to pile up.
“It’s very hard making sure I can cover the payroll. It’s hard to put into words. I’m nervous,” she told Bridge. “There is always the fear of our business failing.”
Indeed, access to child care remains a crucial barrier to reopening the state economy following the coronavirus lockdown, but a recent survey from the Early Childhood Investment Corp. found less than half, 2,917 of 6,000 licensed facilities statewide, are open.
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“Even before the pandemic, access to quality child care was one of the main issues facing working Michigan families,” said Dawne Bell, CEO of the Lansing-based nonprofit that advocates on early childhood issues and cond.
“The No. 1 reason why a family had to leave work or choose not to enter work is because they could not find affordable child care. There is no economic recovery without child care.”
Smaller, home-based providers are more likely to be up and running, as the survey found nearly two-thirds still open, compared to just more than a fourth of day care centers.
In Grand Rapids, during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, a couple families pulled their children out of the modest day care operation Kerry Ferrone runs out of her brick two-story home.
“Fortunately, I had some families on a waiting list and I’m currently full.” Ferrone said.
That means she’s at her licensed capacity of six children.
But she still has a list of other working families with infants and toddlers waiting to get in ─ the kind of bottleneck experts say threatens not only the welfare of thousands of children, but also any economic rebound from the coronavirus.
The Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, forecast in April that funding uncertainties tied to COVID-19 could result in the loss of more than 120,000 Michigan care slots and 4.5 million in the nation.
And given the documented flaws in Michigan’s child care network even before COVID-19, those findings could foreshadow deeper cracks in the system.
A 2018 Center for American Progress analysis found that 44 percent of Michigan families lived in child care “deserts” with poor access to licensed care. The analysis identifies census tracts – areas roughly the size of a neighborhood, of which there about 2,800 total in Michigan – with more than 50 children under age 5 that have no licensed child care or so few options there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.
And even where nearby licensed care is available, many families can’t afford it.
According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based progressive nonprofit, the cost of child care for Michigan parents with two children in day care is more than $17,000 a year. That can be tough for even middle class families to afford.
In Michigan, nearly 1.7 million households — 43 percent — could not afford basic needs such as housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and technology in 2017, according to a report by the Michigan Association of United Ways.
Michigan offers payment assistance to needy families for child care, but sets its household income threshold at 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Only five states have lower income eligibility limits for child care assistance.
As a result, according to the Michigan League of Public Policy, the number of Michigan families receiving child care assistance fell from 67,000 in 2003 to about 33,000 in 2010 to just under 20,000 for October 2019 through June.
Gilda Jacobs, the group’s president and CEO, said the coming months could be a severe test of the state’s child care system ─ especially for low-income workers who already struggled to find affordable child care.
“If you are on the margins and making only $10 of $11 an hour and it could cost $10,000 for child care for one child, how are you going to be able to afford that?” she asked.
“The whole system needed to be fixed before. It needs to be fixed even more now.”
Jacobs contended that federal help is needed to shore up child care across the country, noting the U.S. House pegged $7 billion in relief for parents and child care providers in its $3 trillion Heroes Act that passed in May, a bill Senate Republicans dismissed out of hand.
But many child care advocates say far more is needed, as a group of Democratic senators introduced a measure that would provide $50 billion in child care funding.
Whether any of these measures survive fraught negotiations on coronavirus relief between the Democratic House majority and GOP Senate remains to be seen.
“If I had a crystal ball ─ I don’t know,” Jacobs said.
As the pandemic grew in late April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a $130 million investment to keep the state’s child care network afloat and make it more accessible for Michigan families. The fund consists of $100 million in federal CARES Act funding and $30 million from the state's child care fund, with grants targeted at licensed providers and licensed-exempt providers.
Grants started at $1,500 for home-based providers and $3,000 for child care centers. Additional funds were to be awarded based on the size of the provider.
Grant recipients had to commit to cutting their weekly rates by at least 10 percent and provide care for children of essential workers regardless of where their parents work.
But more than two months later, more than half the state’s licensed providers remained closed. That surely reflects the reality that 15 percent of Michigan’s workforce was unemployed in June, meaning that thousands more workers are home with their children and have no need for child care.
Still, it’s unclear how many child care operations now closed will come back with an uptick in the economy.
John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said employee access to quality and affordable child care is “critical” to state manufacturers. (Courtesy photo)
Southwest of Detroit, Alyce Castellese shuttered her Monroe home day care operation in March. She’s still closed, after 36 years running a business, licensed for six children, out of her two-story home.
She explained that she and her husband, Paul, are both in their 60s, overweight and diabetic. All are risk factors for COVID-19.
“We’re both high risk and because of that I don’t want to open up until things are better,” Castellese said.
She’s unsure when that might be.
“It seems like the cases in Michigan are starting back up on the upswing. I’m just waiting until it’s safe. I just kind of feel like I will know it when it comes.”
In the meantime, business groups continue to pound the table for better access to child care, saying it’s vital to productivity and retention of their workforce.
“For us, it’s critical. It’s a very real issue and it’s scattered across the entire state,” said John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, a Lansing-based nonprofit trade group.
Walsh noted that manufacturers don’t have the options of office employers, where workers can stay home and tend to young children ─ and still get work done through virtual links like Zoom.
“We are working with our hands and robotics and machines and we are not able to do it off-site.”
Walsh said the layout of many manufacturing plants also makes it hard to establish on-site day care because of space limits.
Walsh called for better collaboration between employers and state and local governments to find ways to boost access to child care.
“It’s got to be regional. Every region is very, very different,” he said.
Talent 2025, a west Michigan-based business coalition focused on finding and developing talent, has advocated for more investment in child care for years as it argues that a shortage of quality and affordable child care has a “real economic cost to our region and our state.”
Chuck Dardas, CEO of Livonia auto parts manufacturer Alpha USA, said child care remains a top worry for his work force of about 135, after the plant resumed operations on May 18.
“We have single parents both male and female and it’s a challenge for them,” Dardas told Bridge.
“We’ve got people who didn’t come back to work because they cannot get child care. We’ve got people that have come back to work and they are asking for reduced hours because they cannot afford a whole week’s worth of child care.”
“It can cost $300 or $400 a week and that can be a backbreaker for many of our people.”
Chuck Dardas, CEO of Livonia auto parts manufacturer Alpha USA, said "we’ve got people who didn’t come back to work because they cannot get child care.” (Courtesy photo)
He added that on-site day care isn’t an option at his plant.
“We’re a small company and we don’t have a large enough area to have something inside our building where we could provide day care.”
Working with child care concerns raised by union representatives, Dardas said the firm this week is launching a four-day work week ─ composed of four 10-hour shifts ─ to save employees on child care costs.
For the past few months Charlotte resident Christy Gleason has juggled work at home, paying her bills and finding new day care for her 1-year-old twins.
Gleason, who submits felony probation reports for the Eaton County drug court, had the twins in day care until March and the statewide shutdown order. As the drug court switched to remote meetings with probationers, Gleason tried to do so at home with the twins in the next room.
“I would try to time the Zoom meetings with their naps,” she said.
That didn’t always work.
“They would wake up and start crying. I would go in and get them more toys.”
She tried to hire sitters to look after the twins while she conducted her virtual reports.
“Sometimes the sitters weren’t available,” she said.
Gleason returned to work in early May, leaving the twins in a home day care setting that closed a month later.
The twins are now in D’Lynn Smith’s Acres of Play. As she navigates a divorce and a tight budget, Gleason is grateful she can afford her child care costs ─ for now.
“It’s more than my Jeep payment and close to my rent,” she said.