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Johnson County program will put $2 more per hour in the pocket of child care workers

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
IPR file
Jordan Lee (left) keeps count of the children in her class at Postville Child Care Services ahead of a walk around the block.

A new program aims to put more money in the pockets of child care workers in Johnson County.

Starting in March, the Wage Enhancement Program will cover the cost for eligible childcare providers to give workers an extra $2 per hour. This represents a $1.5 million investment of American Rescue Plan dollars from Iowa City and Johnson County. They hope the program will create new capacity at child care providers, while maintaining existing workers.

“We've identified now in Johnson County that there are a number of childcare centers that have closed classrooms simply because they don't have the staffing capacity to maintain those classrooms,” said Lynette Jacoby, director of Johnson County Social Services. “This has resulted in long waiting lists for families to access care.”

Johnson County Social Services conducted a survey of 42 area child care providers that found more than 100 full-time staff openings and more than 60 part-time openings. Jacoby emphasized that while the wage enhancement program is a local fix, it’s far from a local problem.

It’s estimated that the state’s trouble with child care means it misses out on $935 million annually, according to the 2020 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The report polled parents, a little over half of whom reported missing work due to child care issues in the past 3 months. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, child care slots, while returning, are doing so at a slower rate than other sectors. According to the Center for American Progress, this has as much to do with low-wage workers having more power to choose jobs that pay better wages.

Johnson County officials are betting that increasing the wages will help deal with the high turnover rate and issues recruiting new workers.

Chelsey Markle is the executive director of the Arc of Southeast Iowa, which has a daycare that’s been field testing a rollout for the program. She says higher, more stable wages for full-time employees will be a boon for the operation. It’s no secret, she said, that low wages are part of their problems. But there’s only so much cost-eating a parent can do before leaving the workforce to take care of their child becomes more cost-effective.

“There's a cap on what we can do to increase those wages short of passing costs along to families,” Markle said.

In order to participate, the program must meet a list of requirements, including being located in Johnson County, as well as being licensed and in good standing with the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services. Staff, too, must work a minimum of 32 hours per week year-round; work with children 5 years old and younger; and earn less than $23 an hour.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa