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Citing workforce crisis, advocates ask state to help raise child care wages

Kendra Jackson reads to her class of preschoolers at Children's Playhouse Whitman, an early childhood learning center in South Philadelphia.
Emma Lee
Kendra Jackson reads to her class of preschoolers at Children's Playhouse Whitman, an early childhood learning center in South Philadelphia. Advocacy groups Thursday urged the state to infuse the child care industry with funding, to help stem the sector's rampant staffing shortages.

The people who care for Pennsylvania’s youngest kids are paid so little, advocates say it’s creating an industry crisis – one with reverberations across the economy.

A coalition of Pennsylvania child care and family advocacy organizations is asking state lawmakers to do something about it. They argue that low wages – and public attitudes that undervalue child care work – harm educators, families and the overall economy, which depends on accessible and affordable child care options.

Harrisburg-based Start Strong PA and Pittsburgh-based Trying Together on Thursday released a report on the state of child care in Pennsylvania, and called for greater state investment in the child care industry, with a focus on raising wages.

The situation, they said, is dire.

“[T]he staffing crisis is continuing to deepen and further impact the accessibility of high-quality early childhood experiences for children and families," the report said. "Continued long-term investments are needed to help the early childhood field survive."

Low pay leads to high turnover, staffing shortages and empty classrooms. As a result, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania kids under 5 are on waiting lists for child care.

State regulations require child care providers to limit their enrollment according to staffing levels.

“We are ratio-based,” said Lynda Mussi, executive director of The Learning Station in State College. “And so, when a Baby Room teacher doesn't show up, that means four children can't show up.”

Mussi said Thursday that her center is licensed for 70 more children than they have the staff to care for.

Start Strong PA and Trying Together, along with other child care advocates, are calling on Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to invest an additional $115 million in sustainable funding that would give a $2 per hour raise to child care staff. The commonwealth’s budget negotiations are now in progress, with a deadline of July 1.

The median wage for a child care worker in Pennsylvania is $10.69 an hour, according to the organizations’ report, which means many workers earn a poverty-level wage. At the same time, the report says, child care is expensive for families. Some spend between $8,700 and $11,560 annually for infant care.

The problem has only worsened since the pandemic. COVID-19 safety protocols brought higher costs for providers and often required smaller classroom sizes.

Lesely Crawford, owner and director of ABK Learning and Development Center in Pittsburgh, said she and other center directors are struggling to hire workers qualified to provide care for young kids.

“I want to stand on the corners and snag people and say, ‘Hey, I need workers,’” Crawford said. “But, that's not the reality of it, because we need quality workers.”

A Start Strong survey in March found that roughly 30,000 additional kids could be served if child care programs were fully staffed.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.