Daycare space 2 FILE PHOTO

Kids Corner Director Cassie Frey cleans chairs in the day care's new room in the St. Peter Community Center in June. Though programs like Kids Corner in St. Peter are growing, Greater Minnesota is experiencing a child care crisis as more in-home care providers shut down with each passing year. File photo

It's no secret child care is a growing need in Greater Minnesota. Yet experts and child care providers say stagnant wages and dwindling in-home care is creating a crisis where would-be parents are being turned away from providers before they're even expecting a baby.

Child care professionals and concerned experts from across the state urged lawmakers to ease burdensome regulations and increase financial assistance reimbursements during a Senate human services reform committee hearing Wednesday.

Child care access is a pervasive issue across the state, compounded by an impending workforce shortage that has residents scrambling to find jobs in communities with child care and employers rushing to find child care to attract workers.

A report from the Center of Rural Policy and Development found Greater Minnesota lost more than 15,000 spaces at child care businesses between 2006 and 2016. The majority of that came from in-home care providers who shut down or retired.

While child care centers have increased during the same time, there aren't enough new centers to off-set the loss of in-home providers. Those centers face high starting costs and are more likely to open in larger areas near the Twin Cities than in rural towns.

"Population density is a significant impact on opening child care centers," Marnie Werner, the research director who wrote the report, told lawmakers Wednesday.

Low wages are also contributing to the provider shortage. Most teachers and aides get paid close to minimum wage, which one child care professional called "very shameful, very discouraging to our field."

Werner told lawmakers about a Mankato provider who wants to tear down a sign in front of Aldi's offering to hire workers at $15 per hour plus benefits because she couldn't offer that kind of pay to her workers.

Many child care centers take children with financial assistance, but they can't always off-set the cost difference for low-income families. And with Greater Minnesota families making less on average than families in the metro area, rural residents are less likely to be able to afford the rates at child care centers.

Jon Losness of Families First in Rochester said a recent study found infants cost a little more than $300 a week to care for as of 2015, but he's heard of some child care providers charging up to $400 or $500 a week.

Other areas of the state face a similar child care crunch. Sue Loch, executive director of the Children's Center in Albert Lea, told lawmakers her facility had more than 250 children on waiting lists for child care spots, including 44 infants and 43 toddlers.

"We also have had two doctors call us and blame us for leaving our community because they couldn't find child care," Loch said.

Other professionals say the competition for child care access is so brutal parents are trying to book spots before they even get pregnant. For them, the crisis is "not just words," said Karen DeVos of Little Learners Child Care in Ada.

"It is happening," she said. "It is real."

Some businesses and communities are looking into providing child care on their own. Larry Taylor, vice president at North Mankato-based Taylor Corp., told lawmakers about the child care center they opened in 1980 after employees had difficulty finding care for their young children.

The Golden Heart Child Care Center takes care of 117 children, almost all of whom have Taylor Corp. employees as parents.

Yet Taylor said it would be difficult to replicate the company's solution around the state.

"We subsidize this tremendously," he said. "For ever dollar the parents pay, we subsidize over 44 cents."

Some communities have created their own child care solutions. Franklin, Minnesota, reportedly partnered with area businesses to create a child care and community center after three out of four providers left the area.

In Mapleton, city officials hope to work with other small towns to convert excess funds in Blue Earth County's small cities loans program into a forgivable loan-type grant program to attract more child care providers.

"We've got a nursing home in town and we're looking at cross-staffing," said Mapleton Mayor John Hollerich.

Local communities will eventually need to stop or reverse the in-home care provider decrease, however. Several professionals pointed out state efforts to fund pre-kindergarten programs at school districts will hurt in-home care the most, as a 4-year-old costs far less to care for than an infant. And the state's financial assistance reimbursements aren't enough for families.

In addition, child care experts say changing day care license regulations are causing providers to shut down. The complex regulations are also discouraging new providers from creating in-home businesses.

While the GOP-controlled Legislature could be receptive to getting rid of undue regulations and unfunded mandates, lawmakers were less certain about state or federal funding as a child care solution.

"There's no money here to do all this," said Jim Abeler, chair of Senate Human Services Reform and Finance Policy.

Abeler, R-Anoka, instead encouraged professionals to seek local solutions and provide more information on burdensome regulations to lawmakers. He agreed the state needs to do something to stop in-home care providers from closing but said communities need to partner with nonprofits and other businesses to find a workaround that works for them.

That still leaves Greater Minnesota at a child care deficit, however. Outstate needs about 35,000 more child care spots, and Minnesota could use about 80,000 in total.

Rural officials say lawmakers at the Capitol should look at Greater Minnesota's struggles as a sign of worse problems to come.

"This is more of a crisis right now in Greater Minnesota, but I've got news for the metro folks: It is coming," said Dan Dorman, director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. "And it's going to be the same issues."

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