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Surviving Maine's daycare desert

Families are on months-long waiting lists, daycare centers can't find or afford help, and the cost of child care in Maine, in some cases, rivals college tuition

PORTLAND, Maine — Elizabeth Valentine is a nurse practitioner in Scarborough. Her husband is a physician assistant in Portland. Their son, William, is 9 and a half months old. They never considered the cost of child care when they were planning on starting a family.

“We started looking for day care when I was about 11 weeks pregnant," Valentine said. “We started to panic a little bit.”

Credit: NCM
Elizabeth Valentine and her son, William

The couple was placed on five wait lists at Portland area day cares. In fact, Valentine said they tried to get on as many waiting lists as possible and most required an in-person tour before signing up. They are still waiting for some to open up.

In 2018, the cost of day care at a center ranged from over $5,000 per year for school-aged children to over $11,000 for infants. A family care facility averaged about $7,000. To put it in perspective, tuition for an in-state student taking 15 credit hours at the University of Maine is $5,585 a semester – or $11,170 a year.

Credit: NCM
Source: 2018 Maine Child Care Market Rate Survey, DHHS

“I didn’t factor it in at all," Valentine said. "If I had, I think I would have taken one or two years extra before getting pregnant just to save up money to pay for day care.”

Many families would get help from relatives, but in Valentine's case, her closest family members are in New Hampshire. “Not working was not an option,” she said.

Even though the cost of child care is high, according to the Maine Children's Alliance, many providers aren't even charging what they should be to maintain a business.

“A lot of people do this because they love working with children, but at some point, they have to pay their bills,” said Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst at Maine Children’s Alliance. “This is a field predominantly served by women and many have other options to go into other fields. In terms of pay for this field, it is significantly low. The average pay for child care workers is about $24,000 a year.”

Maine Children's Alliance has three potential solutions for Maine's child care issues

On Jan. 1, 2019, Maine's minimum wage increase kicked in. For those providing child care, it means more overhead cost in a dwindling worker talent pool.

RELATED: Minimum wage increases from $10 to $11 an hour

Judy Defelice operates a small, 12-child family child care center out of her Waterville home. She told NEWS CENTER Maine, the rise in the minimum wage, and other costs associated with it may force her to raise prices by the fall.

“I would never close my day care, I enjoy it too much," Defelice said. “I have to raise the prices which are hurting the middle income more than anything and that is the majority of my families. Just watching these kids, they’re like my kids, and watching them grow is hard to put words on.”

It's affecting larger facilities as well. Family Focus in Brunswick cares for about 360 children. Executive Director Laura Larson said no one is denying the expensive cost of care and acknowledged parents already pay an exorbitant price.

“For us, it’s trying to make sure all we give all of the quality services that we need to give and also still trying to be at a reasonable, affordable rate for parents to actually work," Larson said. “My biggest part of my budget, which is about 75 percent of my budget, is personnel costs. And we still don’t pay our staff nearly what they should be paid.”

Larson told NEWS CENTER Maine she is able to make it work because her families, already strained by costs, throw fundraisers to support her workers.

Family Focus center on Water Street is dealing with another issue plaguing the industry: a lack of staff. It can hold 48 children, but it is not at capacity because they can't fill positions or find substitutes.

Larson says these factors have been looming for about three years. She's afraid by the time solutions are implemented there could be a bigger dilemma across the state.

"If families can’t work it’s going to hit the labor force," she said. "It’s not an early childhood education problem. If families can’t bring their children to quality programs, they can’t work.”

Maine Children's Alliance said the situation could get worse before it gets better. Workers are retiring faster than their replacements are able to take their spots.

“If they can’t afford to survive financially in this field, they are going to leave this field," Furlow said. “We are reaching a crisis in Maine. We have to help parents find and pay for infant care.”

Both Family Focus and the Maine Children's Alliance say it's going to come down to more aid from the state and businesses in Maine to step in and support the child care field so they can get their workers to work.

If you are looking for child care, but don't know where to begin, Maine Children's Alliance suggests visiting Child Care Resources to assist with early child care needs.

You can join the ongoing conversation on Surviving Maine's Day Care Deserts on the NEWS CENTER Maine Facebook page.