RICHMOND, Va. -- From chasing her daughter Hayden around the house with laptop in hand, to sitting in her daughter's playpen with her computer, this is now Chesterfield mom Kirsten Irby's average Monday.
"My husband and I take turns, every other Monday I am home," Irby said on a recent Monday at home.
Irby and her husband both work full-time.
They typically rely on daycare for their 16-month-old, but for weeks now they have not been able to send her on Mondays.
"They let us know that her classroom as well as two other classrooms would be closed every Monday," Irby said.
The reason? The daycare does not have enough staff.
"Our daycare, they are really stretched thin and really stressed out and I hate seeing them like that," Irby said.
And, it's not just the Irbys' daycare.
Data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows employment in the child daycare services industry is down more than 134,000 employees nationwide.
That is a 14% drop between the first quarter of 2020, and the first quarter of 2021.
"What could be a good solution? What could they do differently that they're not doing now to get staff, but it's like, they're doing all of the right things kinda makes me sad," Irby said as she started tearing up.
So, why are those workers quitting?
"It's really sad...my favorite part was the arts and the crafts and making stuff," Nicole Hill, who left the industry two years ago, said.
She has a college degree from Longwood University and worked in daycare for 15 years, most recently as a lead teacher for two-year-olds.
"I really enjoyed what I did. I loved the kids. I loved the families and the parents," Hill said.
She exited to take a job working the front desk at a doctor's office because they offered benefits.
Most daycare jobs do not.
"The benefits where I'm at is a world of a difference," Hill said. "I was spending so much on health insurance, that's what all my paycheck would go to was my health insurance. Paying $500 a month to $30 a month, there is no comparison."
Hill also said hourly wages that often range from $9 to $12 an hour turn people off.
"We haven't really moved up much, you just kind of tap out," Hill said.
For those that stay, like Finesha Washington, making ends meet can be tough.
"I teach preschool, I work at a childcare center, I pretty much prepare them for kindergarten," Washington said. "Evening job is Popeyes. I work frontline, cashier, drive thru."
Washington makes roughly the same wage at both jobs: a little under $10 an hour.
She works Monday through Friday at the daycare all day.
"It's not enough money honestly, that job itself maybe pays two bills only," Washington said.
Then she works Thursday and Friday nights at Popeyes, and weekends at Popeyes.
"Saturdays and Sundays are 11-5 p.m. Sometimes I do doubles so that's until 12 a.m.," Washington said.
She is also working to get her associate's degree in early childhood education.
Washington's Popeyes job allows her to pay the bills while doing what she loves, but she rarely has free time.
"I have a passion for working with kids, I've been doing it since I was about 14, and I get so attached to them, I love seeing their progress as they progress," Washington said.
She dreams of opening her own child care center one day, but J. David Young, the Executive Director of the Friends Association for Children in Jackson Ward, said operating a child care facility is becoming increasingly difficult.
"I've lost staff to Walmart and Amazon over the years because the opportunity is there, younger folks want money now," Young said.
He said higher wages would mean higher cost for parents.
"Absolutely, unfortunately," Young said.
But parents are already paying an exorbitant amount for child care with many spending nearly the same as their mortgage, if not more.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, parents pay an average of nearly $1,200 per month for infant care in Virginia, and roughly $900 per month for four-year-olds.
That brings us back to Kirsten Irby, who does not have a solution but hopes someone comes up with something soon.
"It is very straining on my position and straining on my husband's job," Irby said. "It just really breaks my heart being in this crazy time where they can't find staff to take care of our little ones....It's an essential industry. Those folks need the best of the best and deserve it."
Virginia is piloting an incentive program to try to keep teachers in child care programs.
They are giving over 6,000 early childhood educators who work in daycares up to $2,000 each.
These educators work in daycares that are publicly funded, which means they accept low income children whose payments are subsidized by the federal government.
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