Challenges abound for child care providers; senators signal support for additional aid

The Gallatin Valley YMCA started offering free child care for front-line workers in March. There are now 11 children on the waitlist for that service.

The Commons is donating its space for the program for K-8 kids, but it’s still an expensive endeavor for the nonprofit, YMCA CEO Andrea Stevenson said. And now businesses are reopening and more people are going back to work, but schools are staying closed.

“As time has gone on, demand has definitely increased,” Stevenson said.

The YMCA’s normal summer programming for kids will begin June 15, but the free child care program might not last that long. The service might end by the end of May.

“Unless we get some funding, we can’t keep running this program,” Stevenson said.

Montana’s senators signaled Tuesday that they would push to secure more federal money for child care as Congress considers approving additional aid for impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming weeks. In a joint news release, Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester announced they signed a bipartisan letter with 21 other senators to send to Senate leadership urging additional support.

“Even before COVID-19, one of the most common concerns we heard from parents, especially in rural areas, was the struggle to find child care,” the letter says. “The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening this situation and has led to a significant reduction in revenue for child care providers because many parents are now staying home with their children.”

The letter says providers have seen support through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, but that lawmakers remain concerned that providers “will be unable to weather the storm without additional relief.”

Additional money is needed, Stevenson said, especially because child care is getting more expensive. Restrictions in place due to the pandemic require more cleaning supplies, more staff time dedicated to cleaning, smaller ratios of children to staff and stricter capacity limits within child care facilities.

The restrictions reduce revenue and increase expenses.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced last week that $10 million in grants is now available for child care providers in Montana. Stevenson said she and others have been waiting for that announcement since early April. The money comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act but is separate from the $1.25 billion that was allocated to Montana last month. Providers are still waiting to find out who will get the grants.

“We have no money. And that’s been frustrating, because the state has had (the federal allocation) for a long time,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson collaborated with Danica Jamison, president and CEO of Greater Gallatin United Way, and others to apply for grants.

Jamison said child care providers often operate on slim margins, and that it’s only more precarious during a pandemic.

“We’re seeing the need for tremendous public investment. That needed to be made before COVID-19, but the situation has been exacerbated,” Jamison said.

Jamison pointed to a recent study from the left-leaning Center for American Progress that showed Montana could lose 58% of its child care slots without financial support. The study shows that before COVID-19, there were 3.89 children in need of care for every slot available in Montana. After COVID-19, that’s estimated to increase to 9.25 children in need for every one slot.

Jamison said Gallatin County alone could only meet 35% of its child care needs before the pandemic even began.

There’s not just a need for more child care slots, Jamison said, but also a need for more support for providers. Jamison said staff who risk exposure to the virus while working in child care should get hazard pay and health insurance.

“Child care is like the hardest job you can imagine, and we need to invest in those providers,” Jamison said.

Jamison said that she hopes the state releases more relief money within the next couple of weeks, and that she’d like to see the governor create a task force dedicated to child care. Jamison said she’s calculated that roughly $25 million more is needed statewide to keep providers afloat for the next two months.

Jamison said child care is vital for not only parents, but for anyone who accesses a service that’s provided by a parent.

“I think it’s absolutely critical that federal level investments be made in child care across the county,” Jamison said.