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Anna Fryer poses for a portrait at Teddy Bear Daycare and Preschool 14th Street in Traverse City on Tuesday. Fryer is the multi-site coordinator for the daycare and preschool.

TRAVERSE CITY — In the same week state officials distributed thousands of dollars to child care facilities statewide, a new report has thrown in some concerning news: many are out of staff.

The report, released Tuesday, has identified a 20 percent vacancy for full-time child care providers. It also identified a 34 percent vacancy rate for part-time staff — employees who are less-credentialed but often credited as critical to keeping centers operational. The pinch is being felt up north, where day care owners can only offer so much to make their open positions attractive.

For years, Anna Fryer said she had little trouble hiring. Her company, Teddy Bear Daycare, runs three centers between Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. COVID-closures sparked off staff departures in all of them, leaving fewer watchful eyes to look over the 145 toddlers and infants cared for between all her centers.

Those departures came even as scores of other county day cares closed. Like many centers, her wait list has more than 200 families on it.

“We had absolutely zero problem hiring. Zero problem finding staff that were credentialed,” Fryer said. “We never had staff that would leave.”

But staff did leave. They told Fryer they needed to look after their own kids at home as they grappled with online learning. Or they said they themselves were worried about infection. In total, she lost five teachers.

State regulations limit the number of children that can be overseen by one licensed provider at a ratio of 6 to one. Those ratios mean that five departures translate into many more unavailable day care slots.

When it came to replacing them, new employees simply weren’t there.

“It was like we hit a brick wall,” Fryer said.

Nationally, the day care industry has been labeled the “most broken business in America.” Centers offer a starting salary of $13.50. For teachers with master’s degrees, salaries start at $15.

Owners like Fryer say they want to boost those, but can’t do so without charging more to parents. Meanwhile, parents are already shelling out $52 per day to drop off preschool age children, and as much as $67 per day for infants.

In a calendar year, a parent would pay up to $13,500 to secure a slot for a preschool age child — that’s more than a year’s tuition at Grand Valley State University, and just the same costs at Michigan State University or University of Michigan.

So Fryer can’t raise her prices or her wages without sinking her business into the red.

For years, employees have continued to work in child care regardless, citing a passion for a rewarding profession.

But pay hikes nationwide have given employees more bargaining power in every industry. Day care wasn’t spared or wasn’t an exception. Local center owners say their $13 per hour support staff couldn’t justify not quitting for higher pay. Un-degreed support staff left for jobs in restaurants and local wineries, Fryer said.

“We’re literally competing against McDonalds,” Fryer said.

Turnover also hit Pathways Preschool, a 42-capacity child care center on Rose Street run by Brittni and Dan Fuller.

Fuller said the departures led to a big re-think of how Pathways cares for its teachers. In June of 2020, the center brought on a mental health consultant to work alongside teachers. Their weekly visits help teachers process, as well as develop resilience, compassion, and patience necessary to a demanding occupation.

“It was just a feeling that we needed another layer of support, another pair of arms to wrap around these people who are raising a generation,” said Fuller. “That really propelled us to move in another direction.”

This week, the Michigan Department of Education sent out $1,000 checks to day care employees, with another round of disbursements potentially arriving in March, according to officials from the Department’s Office of Child Development and Care. The money is coming from the state budget, which allotted the funds from federal COVID-relief packages like the American Rescue Plan.

Department of Education officials say they are eager to open more centers, particularly in identified “day care deserts”. In Lake County, for example, just 5 providers serve a population of more than 640 day care-age children.

But without staff, the state is concerned they’d be pulling employees away from centers already struggling to hold on to their existing staff.

“Our concern is with the sustainability of all providers, regardless of location,” said Lisa Brewer-Walraven, Director of the Michigan Department of Education's Office of Child Development and Care.

Fuller said she was grateful for state support thus far, and suggested that another way to keep the teacher population whole might be to emulate Pathways’ approach: by creating a model that supports teachers.

“What I would like to see happen is more of a model that focuses on teachers’ well-being, and that mental health peice,” Fuller said. “We’re spending thousands of dollars a year to bring this in and it’s so beneficial. It’s really important for us.”

The Department of Licensing and Regulation says that there are new daycare facilities on the way. Four group centers, one group home, and one family home opened in Grand Traverse County in 2021, according to Jeffrey Watrick, a spokesperson for the department. Another 6 have opened between Kalkaska, Antrim, Benzie, and Leelanau counties, with more on the way.

“Additionally, there are 12 child care providers in these counties who have turned in an application and are working through the licensing process,” Watrick said.

Beginning in 2018, the Record-Eagle has reported that more than 74 providers have closed within Grand Traverse County alone.

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