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'We can't operate like this,'| Maine child care providers forced to turn families away due to staffing shortage are begging for federal funds

Heidi McDonald, owner of Heidi's House Child Care in Scarborough, said subsidizing child care for families would allow them to create more openings.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Maine families are facing a challenge in returning to work: a lack of openings to enroll their children in child care.

That lack of openings is due, in part, to a shortage of child care workers. It is a symbiotic and direct relationship causing economic problems not only for families trying to return to work, but child care facility owners trying to pay bills to keep their businesses operating above a deficit. 

Heidi MacAllister McDonald, the owner of Heidi's House Child Care in Scarborough, said she has 21 open spots for children to enroll at her facility, but she has to turn families away because she does not have enough staff.

"I think the need is strong because the availability is so down," McDonald said. "So many child care centers and homes have shut their doors that there's less for parents to find."

McDonald said she has been operating at a deficit: $13,000 a month in the red since the pandemic began.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heidi's House enrolled 128 kids. 10 weeks into the pandemic, more than 100 families pulled their kids from child care due to fears around the virus, slashing Heidi's revenue. She raised wages to retain valuable staff, and did not increase costs for families.  

UNSCRIPTED | Full Interview with Heidi MacAllister McDonald 

"It's all about employment. It all comes down to employment. Employment comes all down to what we will pay them," McDonald said.

McDonald is one of 950 owners that applied for grants through Maine's Department of Health and Human Services to help them stabilize. The money comes from the American Rescue Plan, and comes with the condition that employees who work directly with children get paid $200 per month in bonuses. Owners can also use the money to pay for rent, utilities, reducing fees for families, and more.

McDonald will start getting that money in October. It lasts for 12 months.

"Without consistent, stable federal funds, child care is going to go away because what parents are going to have to pay to keep these wages in place and benefits in place for all the staff, I mean, infant care is going to go over $400 a week. I wouldn't want to go back in a year and say, 'hey I know you love that $17-$18, I'm going to have to cut you back to $16 because the money evaporated,'" said McDonald.

Congress is currently weighing two different infrastructure packages, the more expensive of which includes money to subsidize child care: including universal preschool for kids ages three and four, and money to make sure no family spends more than seven percent of its income on child care.

Senator Angus King sees that portion of the package as necessary.

"Child care is not some sort of luxury or semi-vacation, it's part of what you have to have in order to go to work," said King. "I view this as a straightforward investment that's going to pay us back in terms of productive citizens, citizen to grow up in work and pay their taxes."

Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children is also calling for long-lasting federal funding for child care. She said long-lasting federal funds that allow child care facility owners to hire more staff at more competitive wages means more openings for families at a more reasonable cost.

"It's the scale of investment that's been needed this whole year to really stabilize and shore up our childcare programs who've really suffered a lot of financial losses. These are really good changes changes that I'm sure in a couple of years we'll see families of young children and those who work in childcare advocating for those changes to stick because they've been so wonderful for the childcare sector," said Williams.

McDonald said those federal funds would benefit families, too.

"People aren't going to go back to work if there isn't child care. Every day we turn away people. Every day," she said. "I mean childcare is literally going to go away without federal funds. We can't operate like this, it's not worth it."