RICHMOND, Va. -- Post-pandemic worker shortages have plagued nearly every industry both in Central Virginia and across the country. Child care is at the core of this issue, experts said. People can't go back to work until their children are in good hands, but even child care programs are short on employees.
"It's almost like a traumatic situation that they've been through," Rich Schultz, the president of Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond, said. "It just seems like it never lets up."
Schultz said child care workers can't seem to catch a break after many continued showing up for shifts as COVID-19 shut down other industries.
"It's been a tough road for them the past year and a half," he said.
Schultz works with more than 100 child care programs in Central Virginia.
He said the pandemic significantly heightened what's consistently been an issue -- a lack of workers.
"I mean, it's the worst it's ever been," he said.
According to a new survey by Smart Beginnings Greater Richmond with 34 respondents, 88% of program leaders said staffing is a major issue. In total, they reported 83 unfilled positions. And they said 281 children were on a waitlist.
"They have to make tough choices about closing classrooms if they don't have the staff to support it," Schultz explained.
Child care policy expert Elliot Haspel, with the Robins Foundation, said the worker shortage partly boils down to money.
"We've made child care a low wage industry, and now it's going up against these other low wage industries that are able to raise their compensation," Haspel said.
The median pay for child care employees in 2020 was $12.24 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Haspel said that barely competes with starting wages at Amazon, Walmart, and McDonald's.
"Child care workers are literally cultivating the brain development of the generation," he said. "They're not the people you want super stressed out or turning over all the time."
Haspel explained state and federal governments have historically divested in child care because of sexism.
"America has a very long time thought that it's basically the mother's job to be home with young children," he said.
Haspel believes change begins with a consistent flow of public money, and he called on lawmakers to stop treating child care as a private responsibility.
Both he and Schultz were optimistic about that happening in the future, especially in the Commonwealth.
"I have to say the state of Virginia has taken on this issue in the past three years and made it a top priority," said Schultz.
He said it's a win-win for everyone -- not just children.
"It means less incarceration, it means fewer repeat grades, it means healthier and happier families and children," Schultz said.