After struggling to find an open child care center for her daughter, Leah Scouller realized she should have started looking "as soon as we conceived" if she wanted to return to work.

The Kalama mother and her husband encountered what many child care professionals are calling a statewide child care crisis. Accessible, affordable child care is nearly nonexistent, and that leaves working parents in a bind and businesses with costly "work disruptions."

Scouller said it took changing her husband's work schedule, enlisting her mother-in-law as part-time babysitter and paying almost $150 a week for two days of care at a southeast Portland center to ensure Aimee had adequate care during the work week. At the time, the family was living in Woodland, and Scouller was working for an HVAC wholesale company while her husband was a welder with a construction company.

"It was a nightmare," said Scouller, whose daughter is now two years old and attends preschool at Kalama Child Care. "I had to sit through traffic to go after work to pick her up. ... If there was traffic or issues, I'd have to leave (work) early so I could be there at a certain time to pick her up."

Now, with their second child on the way, the Scoullers have abandoned any plans of finding child care until he's at least one, she said. Instead, Scouller will change her work schedule and once again rely on family to fill in the gaps.

Hundreds of thousands of couples like the Scoullers have reduced their hours or quit their jobs because of the challenge of finding child care, according to a report released last week by the State's Child Care Collaborative Task Force. That report found that the state's child care crisis is costing Washington businesses more than $2 billion a year.

"For a long time we've known that child care has had an impact on families ... but now we have some real data on the impact on businesses," said Allison Krutsinger, early learning policy director for the Children's Alliance.

And Washington isn't the only state facing these challenges, Krutsinger said. The child care crisis is a growing national problem as more parents enter the workforce, but the supply of affordable child care options fails to keep up, she said.

Half of U.S. families reported difficulty finding child care in 2016, according to the Center for American Progress, an independent national policy group. And lost earnings, productivity and revenue due to employees' child care challenges cost the American economy $57 billion each year, the center says.

The estimated cost to Cowlitz County businesses was not available last week, and Kelso-Longview Chamber President Bill Marcum said he hasn't heard much discussion of the child care crisis among business owners so far.

"But that's not to say it's not there," Marcum said.

Amy Anderson, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Businesses, said, "if this has not hit (a business) already, it is going to."

"The core of it is that you have people who want to be in the workforce ... but they can't because child care is not affordable or available for them. That's really taking folks out of the economy when they want to be participating," Anderson said.

Lengthy waitlists, crippling bills

Anderson's organization sits on the Child Care Collaborative Task Force, which was formed in 2018 by a state legislative measure. She said the child care problem has "always been there, but the fact that it is hitting our businesses is probably become more critical in the last five years."

That's due in part to a workforce shortage, Anderson said. Employers already find it difficult to fill vacancies, and the child care crisis limits how many parents decide to work, further adding to the labor crunch.

If they are lucky enough to find an open child care center, working parents can pay to enroll their child in that day program. But the likelihood of finding an open spot is slim.

According to the task force's report, the state's total capacity for child care can serve about 179,000 children ages 0 to 12, but more than 300,000 children under age 6 live in homes where both parents work.

"When I was looking for care, back when (Aimee) was a baby ... I was put on so many waitlists," said Scouller, the Kalama mother. She said didn't hear back from most centers, though one provider called her this month to notify her of an opening -- almost two years after she applied.

Open spots also are very costly: Child Care Aware Washington estimates that the average family pays $10,560 to $16,200 for full-time, licensed infant care. That's on par with annual tuition at the University of Washington ($11,465).

Policy directors and family advocates attribute the lack of available, affordable child care to inadequate state subsidies, low wages for child care workers and the closure of several child care providers in the last five years.

"Child care educators are struggling. ... They make less than parking lot attendants and pet groomers," said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy for Child Care Aware Washington. "That results in high turnover at child care programs ... so even though we have a record demand for child care, we've seen a decline in child care staff over the last number of years."

To avoid lengthy wait lists and crippling bills, some parents choose to send their kids to an unlicensed center or pass them off to friends or family. Others still might quit their job to stay at home with the kids.

"We have talked to many families, and you can see parents and caregivers who have not taken promotions, not taken new jobs, not advanced or been let go ... because child care is a barrier," said Allison Krutsinger, early learning policy director for the Children's Alliance, a Washington group that argues for more public spending on children.

Scouller said she changed jobs in 2017, partly because her employer "wasn't as flexible with child care situations" as her new company is. Now she works with Educational Service District 112, and her boss has agreed to let her work a 4-10 schedule -- four days a week for 10 hours each -- so she can watch her son one day a week after he's born. (Family members are helping watch him on the other days, she said.)

"It was kind of a hard conversation to have (with my boss) at first, but they were actually very, very reasonable," Scouller said.

Cost of missed hours, employee turnover

About three years ago, several business groups in Kalama led a push to open a child care center in the city to help working parents. Many employees had complained that they were spending time and money to drive several miles to their child care facility.

"No day care centers: one reason why I began to be a stay-at-home mom and quit my job two years ago when we decided to have another child," wrote one respondent to a citywide survey.

Since then Kalama Child Care, a full-day center, opened and is currently serving about 20 families. (The program also partners with the Kalama School District to serve another 20 students.)

Director Liz White said the center only enrolls children older than one because it's too expensive to supply infant care. Even still, the program only has a few open spots, depending on the day, and every one of its rooms has some sort of waitlist.

"When parents call, they ask, 'I need placement tomorrow.' ... And I say, 'Sorry, we have a waitlist,' " White said. "Then they all say the same thing: 'That's what we were told at all the other we were calling.' "

As a mother herself, White said she understands the challenge of finding child care. She sent her son to her mother's house until he was three, because it was a cheaper, easier option.

But "when my mom was sick, I would stay home (from work) because there aren't a lot of options out there," said White, who worked as a teacher before becoming the KCC director.

The task force report found that Washington employers spent $53.4 million to pay employees for the hours they weren't at work because they'd arrived late or left early due to child care. Businesses also lost about $2.03 billion to employee turnover -- workers quitting their job or getting fired -- for child care-related reasons.

"When we talk to our businesses, they want to try and find accommodations and solutions to the issues, because they want to keep these qualified workers at their workplace," Anderson said. "But it becomes increasingly more difficult. You can't have a child on a manufacturing floor. A bring-your-child-to-work option is not there for a lot of professions."

'Critical investment' in child care needed

Task force members say collaboration between the business community and the child care industry will be vital in finding a solution to the crisis. Anderson said employers need to be involved so they can "weigh in on what is feasible" for businesses.

Pricco said bringing business representatives into the conversation also adds an "influential" and "powerful" voice to the advocacy effort.

"We talk to parents every day who are trying to find a place to send their kids in two weeks when they start their new job," Pricco said. "We knew all of this was impacting employers' bottom lines, but we just didn't have any numbers to put to it until now. ... We are hoping to lean on their influence, power and resources in order to expand more high-quality child care (options) for their employees, now that they know this crisis is affecting their bottom line."

The child care political and business groups say they want legislators to consider providing more state money to child care providers, so they can cover their operating costs without having to jack up prices for parents. More state funding would also help providers give raises to their staff to prevent turnover and improve employee retention. That, in turn, could keep more providers open -- adding much-needed capacity for more children.

"The reality is, there is a price (to provide child care), and we need to, as a state, demand that this is a critical investment and a critical priority," Krutsinger said. "It's up to lawmakers to make some of those tough decisions, and it's incumbent upon us as advocates and interested stakeholders to demand solutions."

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