Tracy O’Connell says 11 of the staff members at the child care center she directs went back to school this year to earn additional certificates and qualify for more money from the state. This month the Office of Child Development and Early Learning announced it had repurposed the money and that O’Connell’s employees could receive much less.
Last year, child care workers could get up to $3,000 and directors up to $4,000 depending on their education retainment level and the program’s level of quality. About 9,000 workers qualified for the Education and Retention Award (ERA), which was designed to incentivize degreed staff.
Under the change about 33,000 workers qualify for a one-time $600 Pandemic Relief Award. A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said that during a disaster period states have greater flexibility in how to use federal child care dollars.
“This restructuring will significantly expand this reach during a time of great need,” said Erin James Press Secretary for DHS.
James said that DHS has not made a commitment to continue the ERA next fiscal year.
O’Connell with Catholic Youth Association called the move heartless.
“Many of them are single moms. Many of them are low income staff that I’m talking about. Now they have certificates in their hands and there’s no money to reward their work,” she said. “So they returned to work during a pandemic. They risked their lives and their family’s lives for the greater good of the Pennsylvania economy while teachers didn’t return and many other employees didn’t return. They came back and the money was taken right from them.”
Other directors on a call with state senators Tuesday said they’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars during the pandemic and have used CARES Act funding to stay open. The cost of cleaning and personal protective supplies combined with fewer families sending their children to childcare has financially strained almost all providers.
DeJuana Smith owns and operates Future Focus Childcare in Penn Hills. She said it has been extremely hard to retain quality employees.
“People aren’t applying for jobs because they are receiving more money that we are unable to pay because they are making more on unemployment,” she said.
According to Trying Together, a Pittsburgh-based early learning advocacy group, the average wage of a child care worker is $9.71 an hour. About half of child care workers in Pennsylvania utilize government benefits.
State Sen. Lindsey Williams, who represents communities including Aspinwall, Ross Township and Fox Chapel, is the minority chair of the education committee. She promised to share stories with her colleagues and work to reinstate the ERA. She also committed to trying to increase baseline pay.
“We can’t keep losing qualified workers,” she said.