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'A no-win situation': Child care providers say Des Moines is facing a crisis

With fewer workers and longer waitlists, child care providers say change is necessary to prevent the city from becoming a child care desert.

DES MOINES, Iowa — The pandemic has created worker shortages that are contributing to a child care crisis in Des Moines. 

Many parents are on waiting lists, hoping a spot will open so they can get back to work. Meanwhile, child care providers are trying to provide quality child care as they lose caregivers. Both parents and providers say something needs to change to keep the local economy going.

Staffing shortages

Samantha Harms-Kedley is a working parent in need of child care, and a child care provider at the Child Development Center (CDC).

“As much as I’d love to be a stay at home mom, it’s just not feasible anymore,” Harms-Kedley said. “Right before COVID hit, we were really working on expanding the center and that’s totally come to a halt.”

She said the center has had to close classrooms with staff shortages and then close rooms when kids get COVID.

A mother of three, Harms-Kedley has also seen the other side and knows it's getting more difficult to find good child care.

“He just needs this,” she said as she watched her toddler play in a CDC playroom. “He needs to be able to run around and be a crazy little boy.”

Bobbie Jo Sheridan is the district coordinator at Des Moines Public Schools, which is also struggling to provide care.

“Pre-pandemic, if we would have a job posting, we would get tons and tons, like 50-75 applicants,” Sheridan said.

Now, she says when DMPS posts a child care position, they may get one applicant, creating a crisis.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s a no-win situation," Sheridan said.

Pay for child care providers ranges from $9.50 to $12 an hour.

“Compare that to sometimes working at Target or Starbucks where you make $15 an hour, there is a huge disparity there,” Sheridan explained. “Trying to help families find other options, but there are no other options.”

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Impact of the pandemic

Sheridan said DMPS is doing all they can to recruit enough qualified staff with COVID protocols.

“And it’s really hard when families are like, ‘Please, we just want our kids in this program," Sheridan said. "And unfortunately, we just don’t have room.”

As parents get back to work, the waitlist is getting even longer. 

“We always have a waitlist and that waitlist has absolutely been exacerbated by COVID," she said.

Sheridan's center and other child care providers received extra assistance from the Department of Human Services (DHS) to help with some of the COVID-related costs, but it's still a burden for many families reliant on DHS child care assistance.

Cheryl Johnson, vice president of Community-Based Programs of Children and Families of Iowa, is hoping the state will offer more support.

“That’s landing on our legislatures, the state, and DHS to really consider a fair rate for providers for what we need to get by," Johnson said.

“This is not just babysitting,” Johnson continued. “We offer onsite mental health services, on site occupational, speech therapies, meals for meeting food insecurity for families.”

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What's next?

Providers say at this rate, Des Moines is on track to become a child care desert, meaning an area with little or no access to quality child care, according to the Center on American Progress

“I don’t even want to think about what we’re headed towards,” Sheridan said. “If families don’t have child care, they can’t get to work. If families aren’t working, they can’t financially sustain their family, and employers need workers. So really, child care is the crux of all of that and all of our economic stability.”

She said it comes down to how society values child care providers.

“What we are doing is building future generations," Sheridan said. "We’re building so much when we work with these kids—it’s not just babysitting.”

Providers also say they need more direct ways to put money in staff pockets without asking parents to pay more.

The providers tell Local 5 they largely rely on local organizations like the Greater Des Moines Partnership for donations to maintain pay for providers.

In her Condition of the State address, Governor Kim Reynolds outlined a plan to increase the amount of children each provider cares for and create a recruiting bonus of $1000 for care providers.

While providers are encouraged by the bonus in pay, they say more legislative change is needed.

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