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Daycare workers can manage more kids. But is it helping workers stay in these jobs?

Jordan Lee (left) keeps count of the children in her class at Postville Child Care Services ahead of a walk around the block.
Zachary Oren Smith
Jordan Lee (left) counts the kids in her class at Postville Child Care Services ahead of a walk around the block.

This year, the state expanded the number of children a daycare worker can oversee at a given time. The idea was to give more flexibility for providers and add more child care slots for towns in need. But that additional capacity doesn’t appear to have solved the labor side of the equation.

Nestled in on a quiet street, the doors of Postville Child Care Services hide a boisterous scene. After a quick breakfast, the room for 3-year-olds buzzes as kids rotate around a number of stations, drawing a race car only to lose interest and move on, stacking foam blocks only to knock them down.

"They love to build and kick it or knock it down. They like it when it falls on top of them," said Jordan Lee.

Lee is 25. She’s been working at Postville Child Care Services and runs the room of 24 kids with the help of two younger staffers. She started just after high school. She was drawn in by the flexibility. Early on, she floated around the rooms spending some days with 3-year-olds or the "todds," the name for the toddler group.

"But for probably the last five years, it's been specifically three-old preschools and then in the summers 3 and 4-year-olds up to 10-ish," Lee said.

In Iowa, a single provider can only care for a certain number of kids at a given time. Say Lee or one of the other workers in the room need to use the bathroom. The law requires they find another person to step in to keep the ratio of staff-to-kids from exceeding the state's maximums.

Lee said she’s constantly tabulating the kids and staff in her room. Lee said the center's director Kristy Turner often jumps into the room or sends in more people to help staff so bathroom breaks and other needs get met.

"But it doesn't always work out, especially when we're short-staffed," Lee said.

And staffing is trouble. Turner and Lee both expressed the difficulty of recruiting and keeping employees at the center so they can keep up with ratios of their existing kids.

In June, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law that raises the number of children a provider can care for from six 2-year-olds at a time to seven and from eight 3-year-olds at a time to ten. The idea was to increase the number of child care slots, since the increase would free up providers to take on more kids. In theory, the more kids being cared for could translate to more income for centers like Postville and more pay for their staff.

But ten 3-year-olds is a lot to manage. Lee said some years, classes are particularly rowdy and for someone new to the job, overseeing that many kids is a tall order. While a new child provider can legally manage more kids, it doesn't mean they should.

“It kind of creates a lot of stress," Lee said. "I wouldn't expect somebody who had just started to be thrown into being alone with ten 3-year-olds all the time."

IPR News spoke with daycare directors like Turner who said concerns over workforce retention is leading her and other providers to keep ratios the same.

The facility in Postville used to be open from five in the morning to six in the afternoon, 13 hours from start to finish. But due to staff recruitment and retention issues, director Kristy Turner said she reduced service by an hour on each end of the day to help existing staff keep up.

“I got a lot of angry parents and I don't blame them for that," Turner said. "You know, a lot of them work outside of town. How are they going to make it here? You can't."

In Knoxville, Keri Garrison has worked at Stepping Stones Early Learning Center for 28 years. It takes care of 110 kids on average in Marion County. Garrison said her staff has been plagued with high turnover rates. Raising pay is appealing. But when the margins are made by raising the child care costs on families, she worries a price hike might turn away parents.

“It's kind of a double-edged sword," she said. "If you raise it too high, parents are going to think of other ways to make it work. So it's just a struggle if you could just pay more it would be nice.”

Increased pay would help with recruitment and retention. It might also help meet some of the quality metrics set by the state like hiring more staff with a four-year degree.

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, the median wage for child care workers was $9.35 in 2019. That’s a 3 percent decrease since 2017.

Iowa early educators with a bachelor’s degree are paid 36 percent less than their colleagues in the Kindergarten through eighth grade system. In 2020, the Center partnered with the Economic Policy Institute and found the poverty rate for early educators in Iowa is twenty-four percent in Iowa. That’s much higher than other Iowa workers and nearly nine times as high as for K-8 teachers.

“You work with the most cherished gift ever. And, you know, for us to get that opportunity, it's a true honor," Garrison said. "And it's just, it's hard to believe when somebody can go make tape for $30-an-hour and you're molding a child. So yeah, it's a true struggle.”

Back in Postville’s facility, Director Kristy Turner spends a lot of her day in the classroom helping ease some of the strain on staff. She’s making it work, but she is concerned about the future.

"I can't make more people, and I can't duplicate myself," she said. "And so then we would have to close our doors. And that makes me sick. So, you know, every day, I'm just trying to think of all of the ways we can avoid that but at the same time, sometimes you have to look at it and say, Well, this is where we're at right now.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sep. 15 at 1:15 p.m. to correct how many 2 year old children can now be cared for under the new law.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa