By Jessica Carr
Editor’s Note, Feb. 20 at 5 p.m.: The KidZone Museum is a safe place for children to learn, develop, and play, but that is while children are interacting with parents or caregivers. The museum does not provide childcare.
Editor’s Note: Jessica Carr is director of the Sierra Small Business Development Center, a program of Sierra Business Council.
Truckee/Tahoe has a childcare crisis. Among parents, around the playground, and on local parenting Facebook pages, the conversation about finding care for young children is always the same: There are a lack of spaces, long waitlists, and high costs.
While much of the conversation around workforce needs focuses on our affordable housing crisis, extrapolated national data suggests that shortages of available workers are also in part due to a dearth of consistent, reliable, and affordable childcare in our area for working parents, especially mothers. In turn, this is inflicting hardship on our local businesses that are unable to operate at full capacity.
Nevada County’s statistics illustrate the extent of this problem. “We currently have an 87% unmet need for children 0 to 2 years old who are eligible for subsidized care and a 60% unmet need for children 3 to 4 years old who are income-eligible for publicly subsidized early learning and care,” said Rossnina Dort, the director of Early Education Services at the Local Planning Council for Child Care Development of Nevada County. “This means that families with few resources in Nevada County are often unable to secure affordable care for their children, leaving over 5,361 children in need.”
The past two years have seen a dramatic worsening. “Prior to Covid, we were able to admit children in just a few months,” said Kirsten Kuehne, owner and director of Discovery Preschool in Truckee. “Now, our waitlist is two years long. This is incredibly difficult, as we are talking to families who are now faced with the difficult decision of choosing between work and childcare. In most cases there are no other options available.”
Waitlists, high costs
As an example of how long waitlists are negatively impacting families, recently Caroline Schou, a Truckee resident and program director at the Send It Foundation, tried to move her 2-year-old son to a preschool from an in-home daycare environment. She was told that there may be space in the fall of 2024 for her son, which is essentially the same time that he will be eligible for transitional kindergarten, or TK, at a Tahoe Truckee Unified School District school.
In another example, pregnant mothers are advised to put their names on waitlists for infant daycare spaces in the first trimester. My own experience with my child illustrates that even this doesn’t guarantee timely childcare. In 2018, I filled out paperwork at multiple daycares in Truckee with just generic “Baby Carr” identifying information. I was only three months pregnant. Despite this, we were not able to find a spot in a daycare until my son was nearly a year old.
Even more detrimental to residents, childcare in Truckee/Tahoe is one of the largest household expenses for many families, sometimes costing more than housing. Most of the families seeking placement at Discovery Preschool have two parents working full time outside the home, according to Kuehne — a change from the 20 previous years. The lack of available childcare in the area is causing working families, in particular mothers, to bear the brunt of this impact until the child becomes eligible for TK at age 4, she said.
The detriments are worse for people of color. “Services are most scarce for vulnerable populations,” Dort said. “The high costs of ECE programs disproportionately affect families who are Hispanic or Latino, which leads to many families opting for Family, Friends, and Neighbor [a designation] care.”
The burden on mothers is pushing women out of the workforce.
According to Neighborhood Villages, a systems-change nonprofit working to realize a future in which all families have access to affordable, high-quality early education and care, we are seeing the impact of that: In 2021, there was a 6.5% decline (1.6 million) in the number of mothers working in the United States, compared to a year prior.
“Over the last 18 months Tahoe Donner has had seven members of our full-time, year-round staff welcome new babies into their family, including myself,” said Lindsay Hogan, Tahoe Donner’s director of communication and member relations. “It’s been really exciting. The strain of finding childcare for infants has also been tremendous. We’ve had staff resign; we’ve had spouses become stay-at-home parents; we’ve had to staff downgrade positions. The lack of infant care and affordable childcare has caused TD to explore housing a childcare center onsite, but we were not able to find an operator to run the program.”
Solutions are out there. The Sierra Small Business Development Center has multiple programs to help new childcare business owners get on their feet. But there are also plenty of improvements employers can make to ease the burdens that the lack of local childcare is causing their employees.
In Truckee/Tahoe, the existing childcare providers are wonderful. But we need more of them. The Sierra Small Business Development Center provides confidential, no-cost business advising to small businesses and entrepreneurs. In October 2022, we ran a program called How to Start an In-Home Childcare Business. For six weeks, the center worked with attendees on everything from licensing to cash flow to dealing with parents and customer service. The goal of this program is to empower more entrepreneurs to start childcare programs within their homes, creating career opportunities and more openings for care. A similar program is run annually by our partner organization the Women’s Business Center, and is also open and free to all participants. The next cohort will begin this spring.
The SBDC also connects interested providers with other critical resources, like Sierra Nevada Children’s Services and the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee. Sierra Nevada Children’s Services, or SNCS, enriches the community by supporting quality childcare and empowering families to aspire to lifelong success. The nonprofit is a private childcare resource and referral agency that has served families, early childhood professionals, and the community since 1978. It has developed the tools needed for individuals to work with California’s licensing requirements to become a licensed childcare provider in Nevada County.
On the employer side, ways to support families in this vexing issue include increased PTO, flexible scheduling, and job-share opportunities. These tools help employees keep a foot in the door until their family can secure stable childcare. Family-friendly policy also benefits the company’s bottom line by retaining new parents, especially mothers, in the workforce. According to the Maven Clinic’s white paper Back to Work, the Billion Dollar Opportunity for Companies, “Replacing an employee who leaves after childbirth can cost anywhere from 20% to 213% of an employee’s annual salary.”
I feel lucky to have found a village of providers who care for my children while I work. But we need their work to be sustainable enough to provide living wages for those who both own and work at these wonderful centers. While many states, including California, are making strides toward universal childcare during the critical first five years of development with programs like Universal TK, there is still a critical need for licensed childcare facilities, and communities must get creative to increase access to quality childcare for every family.
With persistence, creativity, and hope, our community can overcome these challenges to the benefit of families and employers alike.
~ Jessica Carr is a mother of two who works full time as director of the Sierra Small Business Development Center and unintentionally draws attention to the challenges of working with young children by frequently having them loudly interrupt her Zoom calls.