The Child Care Crisis: What Can We Do?

Why a Lack of Affordable ChildCare is a Critical Business Issue. An extreme shortage of licensed daycares in Victoria is keeping willing and qualified people out of the workforce. Now, governments are stepping up, but is enough being done fast enough?

A family enters the Andrew Sheret Building on Hillside to access the Centennial Day Care. Photograph by Belle White.

It’s a combination of feelings that a good number of working-age adults understand: excitement, relief and fist-pumping joy. It’s not a lottery win but feels akin — your child landed a spot at a quality daycare in your neighbourhood. Pop the cork.

Accessible, affordable childcare is critical to many families’ overall well-being, including mine. After a three-year wait, my three-year-old is finally, and happily, settled into a non-profit, full-time daycare a five-minute bike ride from home — a parenting grand slam if ever there was one.

Currently, we pay $779 per month for the bright, purpose-built space with a partially covered outdoor play area and a team of excellent, experienced early childhood educators (ECEs). Our daycare also happens to be in the same building as the after-school care program for which my other two children are waitlisted. If everything goes as planned, I’ll have one pickup for all three kids at the end of my workday — a veritable miracle for anyone who knows the struggles of coordinating childcare for school-age kids.

Despite having been on the waitlist for the same daycare, my older children — ages five and six — aged into kindergarten without getting a spot. With three children close in age, it didn’t make financial sense for me to go back to work after our youngest was born. Monthly fees can be as high as $1,800 for infant care and hover around $900 for toddlers, and a nanny can be upwards of $2,500, so I put my career on hold until the public school system could preoccupy the older two full time.

I’m far from alone in my experience. Childcare, including schools with their inconvenient pick-up times and unguaranteed before- and after-school-care programs, has long lagged behind the expectations of the business community. The current model was designed for a world long gone, one with a stay-at-home parent, cheap gas and affordable housing. Like a donkey harnessed to a train, childcare has been expected to keep up to the economy without the tools to do so. Caring for children in this irascible market has left parents in Victoria and around the province with few options.

A New Plan

Victoria mother and ECE Danielle Davis has been navigating the local daycare system for seven years with her three children, ages eight, three and six months.

“With my daughter, I put her on five waitlists as soon as I knew I was pregnant — and didn’t get into a single one. I couldn’t find childcare, so I resigned from my position at the time and stayed home,” she says. “Luckily my mother-in-law moved to town — unfortunately after I resigned from my job — but I was able to go back to work part time because I didn’t want to over-burden Grandma, and just to keep my foot in the door.”

Davis says when her middle child landed a spot in an excellent daycare it changed her life.

“I could go to work and not worry about him all day. I’m one of those moms who is a better parent when I go to work; my children thrive when they’re in childcare — they’re in really good centres — and then I thrive.”

Last spring the B.C. provincial government waded into the fray, committing $1 billion of the 2018 budget to improving B.C.’s childcare system.

Some of that money has already been released in the form of a fee-reduction subsidy for parents through licensed providers, lowering monthly costs up to $350 per child for those who opted in.

A $221-million portion of the funding, called the Childcare BC New Spaces Fund, is earmarked for licensed providers to create 22,000 new spots by 2020, though the best way to do so is still being determined. Families will also have access to the new Affordable Child Care Benefit that provides coverage up to the cost of care to those with a pre-tax income of up to $45,000. The subsidy is also available to families who make up to $111,000, though it is scaled accordingly. More than 86,000 families are expected to draw on the aid by 2021. The maximum income threshold for families to access the previous subsidy was $55,000.

Though it backed off its original campaign promise to implement universal childcare as soon as elected, the NDP government has pledged universal $10/day childcare within a decade, and is initiating a $10/day prototype program at a handful of select daycares to test the service in the meantime.

The rollout of that program will be shaped by input collected from other systems, including Quebec’s $7/day model, in place since 1997. Long-term data from the Quebec undertaking reveals that access to universal childcare in that province allowed 70,000 women to join in the labour market, equivalent to a 3.8 per cent labour supply increase.

A Canada 2020 report shows that when universal daycare was established, the number of single-parent families receiving welfare in Quebec declined from 99,000 to 45,000, with the relative poverty rate of single-mother families falling from 36 to 22 per cent. Figures also show that for every $100 that they spent on childcare, the Government of Quebec generated a $104 return on investment.

That’s not to say the Quebec system is perfect. In fact, the quality of care kids received in Quebec’s public system has been criticized as substandard, but the NDP government has promised to keep B.C. childcare quality on par with quantity and affordability as it shapes childcare policy here.

The Business Case

Catherine Holt, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, has long heard the frustrations of local employers when it comes to attracting and keeping employees in a city with a high cost of living, especially when those employees decide to have children.

“The cost [of daycare] is ridiculous, and the availability is abysmal,” says Holt. “And, as a workforce, here we are in the situation where young families are making choices about one of the parents not working because they can’t find or afford childcare, so we are losing workers because of the lack of childcare.”

While Victoria’s tech, construction and tourism sectors are thriving, the childcare market has failed to match the boom, with centres closing as demand peaks. Currently, there is roughly one spot available per eight kids, and waitlists are stagnating at all levels of care.

“Childcare,” Holt adds, “should be treated as a public service, universal and available and affordable in order to run a good economy.”

Building a Workable System

Social scientists have identified the first six years of life as critical to the overall well-being of the average adult, so the lack of quality childcare options across the province — and a historical Canadian trend away from taxpayer-funded, equal-access preschool age childcare — is disconcerting to parents and economists.

A big question is: Why is it only when most kids enter kindergarten that education begins in a real way on the public dime? After all, children who receive balanced, age-appropriate learning and socialization before entering kindergarten have a better chance of being successful and productive adults, and that’s good for the bottom line.

Though funding childcare is bilateral between the two levels of government, the federal government places the lion’s share of the burden on the provinces, kicking in $153 million to B.C.’s $1 billion over the same three-year period. An Early Learning and Child Care agreement between the two implemented in April 2017 was designed to create quality, licensed spaces for 24,000 children and better training for ECEs, but so far any public money spent on childcare has fallen short of procuring an adequate system.

Critics say a key part of the problem is that childcare has historically been run as a market-based system — that is, it’s made up of a patchwork of private licensed and unlicensed for-profit and non-profit daycares. This puts Canada near the bottom of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for investments in early childhood development.  

“There has been the foolish assumption, the incorrect assumption, that childcare will survive in the market, that in an open market spaces will be available if somebody is willing to pay for them, that somehow the price point would even itself out,” says Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C., the group behind the $10 a Day campaign.

“Childcare has not thrived in the marketplace anywhere in the world,” she adds. “It is a textbook case of where you need public investment in order to create a system. And once you have the system and you can get more parents into the workforce and more children ready to be successful in school, you actually get returns that offset that investment.”

The numbers tell the story of how unworkable it is: Victoria families with two earning adults brought in a median total income of $97,580 per year (Census 2016), while single-parent households had a median total income of $49,970. Daycare costs for kids between one and three can go as high as $19,000 per year per child, falling to an average of $11,000 per year for kids between three and five. If a family has more than one child in care, or a parent works on shift schedules, costs can become prohibitive.

To compare, infant and toddler fees in Montreal are $168 per month ($2,016 per year). While families with comparatively stable incomes struggle with the fees here in Victoria, average-to-low-earning residents are at an exceptional and perpetual disadvantage when the city’s high cost of housing is factored in.

“I would say that it is [a human right], because it inordinately affects women,” says Gregson. “It’s absolutely a family issue and absolutely an economic issue, but it’s women who bear the brunt of the crisis, including the majority of workers in the system — 99 per cent of them are women who work in childcare and who are experiencing poverty wages and few, if any, benefits.”

“Right now, it’s in such crisis with the already extreme labour shortage, I can’t imagine any business that, like ours, isn’t suffering on some level.” — Jennifer Hawes, co-owner of ColdStar Solutions on the hiring and childcare crisis. Photograph by Belle White.

A Crisis Identified

The word crisis is often used in the discussion around childcare in this country, but it’s hard to identify with unless you’re experiencing the fallout. Employees of an age to have children also typically have years of critical training and are key to their company’s flow.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you have an employee who is at the stage of their life where they’re having a family, and they want to come back to work, and you want them to come back to work, and you’re ready for them and they can’t find childcare, we are all in trouble,” says Jennifer Hawes, co-owner and VP of community and human resources for ColdStar Solutions Inc.

“That is typically what is happening now. As an employer, if I lose a really great employee, we’re starting from scratch. Maybe we fill that in with a contract position … maybe we just make do. Right now, it’s in such crisis with the already extreme labour shortage, I can’t imagine any business that, like ours, isn’t suffering on some level.”

It’s not a complicated plot. Based on B.C.’s projected population of 5,070,000 in 2020, close to four per cent of the female workforce will be between the ages of 25 and 39, and the number of children born will reach 47,892. Ministry of Children and Family Development numbers show that there are just over 4,300 licensed childcare spaces available for children from birth to five years of age in Victoria, and an additional 1,100 spaces in licensed, multi-age or family childcare facilities.

Spaces are needed, but the number of spots allowed correlates to the number of licensed staff, and compounding the problem is the low wages paid to ECEs who typically make $15 to $18 an hour, often without benefits, which is a barely livable wage in a high-cost city like Victoria. When an ECE leaves for better wages in a different sector, the ability to care for registered children is threatened, and expanding capacity to meet demand becomes impossible. Accordingly, the province has committed to hourly wage increases for ECEs at licensed daycares that registered for the childcare fee reduction initiative, working out to around $4,000/year more per ECE by 2020. Educational support by way of bursaries and practicum financial support, and funding to create 620 new spots for ECEs in post secondary institutions will also be provided.

“The best piece of advice that I got when I was starting out was if you get somebody great, pay them,” says Gillian Fehr, owner Gillybird Nature Academy, which has two local locations.

Fehr starts her employees at $44,500 per year, plus benefits, and offers a flex day every other Friday. Her staff is loyal and employee retention good, but despite a long waitlist of kids, she gets few resumes from ECEs. When she opened her second daycare she received exactly one.

Creating Space

To improve the situation for its own employees, as well as its building tenants, B.C.’s plumbing and heating giant Andrew Sheret Limited incorporated a daycare into its headquarters in Victoria when it was built in 2014.

“My dad, Brian Findlay, was the one that came up with the idea to incorporate a daycare into the building design,” says Julie Findlay, public relations manager of Andrew Sheret Limited.

“He felt that it would serve as an attraction and retention strategy for our employees, as well as for the tenants in the building. People appreciate the convenience of avoiding an extra drop off and pick up stop during their day.”

The Andrew Sheret Limited-owned building provides the daycare as an amenity for the building’s tenants, and it offers favourable lease terms to the non-profit Centennial Day Care Society to ensure its continued operation. A certain number of spaces are reserved for employees and tenants; the rest are offered to the public.

While Andrew Sheret was able to tackle the childcare challenge directly, most businesses have employees who rely on what’s available in the general daycare pool, and a lack of options looms large for businesses deciding whether Victoria is a safe bet to set up shop.

“It’s a huge problem for a number of reasons. In terms of retaining businesses here, they look at this as an important aspect for retaining their workforce and keeping them engaged and making it more attractive,” says Emilie De Rosenroll, CEO of South Island Prosperity Project (SIPP), an organization dedicated to facilitating the development of a strong economy on the South Island.

“The other part is, if you look at talent being equally distributed among the genders in the workforce, then you really put half your workforce at somewhat of a disadvantage where one family member has to stay home, whether male or female — that can be a waste.”


Moving Forward

It’s no simple thing to set up a childcare centre. Licensing criteria for daycares includes indoor-outdoor access, safe play areas and equipment, and an appropriate number of toilets and sinks, making many commercial spaces unsuitable for child minding.

To address the location problem, advocates and local government officials say it makes sense for childcare centres to be built on public land and incorporated into new public buildings such as libraries, schools and community centres — and the province is in agreement.

In Victoria, an informal working group spearheaded by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps in the spring of 2017 has unified organizations representing diverse interests but who share a goal in improving local childcare options.

The Child Care Solutions Working Group includes the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, including Chief Health Officer Dr. Richard Stanwick, a number of community centre executive directors, School District 61 (SD 61), childcare providers, the Child Care Resource & Referral Centre and various city departments.

“The goal of the working group is very clear — it’s to get more childcare spaces in the city of Victoria in every neighbourhood, and we are making progress towards that goal,” says Helps.

The group has identified ways the City of Victoria can contribute to solutions that ease the way for childcare operations, including designating special zones and times on public streets that make it easier for parents to drop off and pick up their kids. Relaxing zoning and rezoning bylaws to favour childcare tenants is also being considered.

This group lobbied Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen and has a plan to add childcare spaces through modular SD 61-built buildings called learning studios on school land next year. Coming in around $250,000, the single-storey buildings offer 20 licensed daycare spots, and are easily replicated, eliminating fuss while meeting licensing criteria.

So far, SD 61 has committed to establishing one centre per month in 2019.

“We’ve systematized it,” says Helps, “starting in Vic West because that’s where the greatest number of spaces are [needed], and we’ll go from there. But it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had everyone at the table.”

SD 61 is already building the modular childcare centres to meet the provincial mandate and community needs, and SD 61 secretary Mark Walsh says more of the learning studios are in the works. While SD 61 already supplies 1,000 childcare spots at 22 schools, class-size reductions and increasing enrolment saw spaces previously earmarked for preschool-age programming redistributed to school-age children.

Provincial funding will give boards of education the ability to recoup 100 per cent of the associated daycare launch costs, up to $500,000. The centres will be run by independent operators from the community; an example of which is the Neighbourhood Learning Centre, which was incorporated into the renovation of Oak Bay Secondary School and houses a municipally run daycare and before- and after-school programs for nearby École Willows Elementary.  

“The reason we want to look at public opportunities,” says Chen, “is also because we notice that with public investment, if it’s for example land that belongs to a municipality or a school district, they tend to provide more stability and accountability and make sure the childcare spaces we are building will remain as a community asset.”

Chen adds that a diverse childcare system should include public and private options, and that the government will take existing providers into consideration as systems are implemented.

“Both contribute to the system, and we want to continue to see how we work with different providers. How do we learn from their operations, what challenges do they have and how we can support them better.”

Being late to the game is better than not showing up at all, and advocates agree the delay has an upside: allowing government time to study publicly funded childcare models in Quebec, P.E.I., Australia and New Zealand. Making good on the final arrangement will be nothing short of a labour of love, and it’s one that will shape the labour market for years to come. It’s been a long time coming for childcare champions like Gregson.

“I don’t want my daughters and granddaughters to experience the same chaotic situation,” she says. “I don’t want them to experience the same barriers to workforce participation that I did.” 

This article is from the October/November 2018 issue of Douglas. Learn more about the advertising opportunities with this popular business magazine.