How Utah’s child care challenges impact working parents

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Destini Van Leeuwen and her husband, Travis, struggle to find child care for their two sons, Wyatt and Emri. The couple also has a 6-month-old. (Kallie Peterson)

First in a series. See also “How Utah is addressing child care challenges

Destini Van Leeuwen knows firsthand the difficulties of managing child care needs.

While working as an underwriter for personal finance company SoFi, the mother of three from West Valley City would watch her children for the first part of the day while her husband worked; then they would switch and she would work from 1:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. because they “just couldn’t afford child care.”

“I missed out on dinners, baths, night-time stories and lots of memories,” she said.

Though she now works more regular daytime hours as a loan specialist for Celtic Bank, she said she doesn’t spend as much time with her kids during the week as she would like.

“I do feel that I miss out on part of their lives and special moments,” she said.

Van Leeuwen’s story is not unique; her children are part of the 52 percent of Utah kids under age 6 whose available parents are in the workforce, according to 2017 data from the Kids Count Data Center. This means she, like countless other Utah parents, faces child care issues such as affordability, availability and credibility.

However, child care problems aren’t just Utah specific, according to Robbyn Scribner, a researcher and writer for the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

This is a national crisis and it’s actually a global crisis,” she said.

Affordability

Part of the child care problem is affordability. An appendix in a 2018 report from Child Care Aware of America shows in 2017, Utah ranked No. 17 in the nation for least affordable center-based toddler care at $9,600 a year, and No. 17 in the nation for least affordable family-based toddler care at $7,200 a year.

As of Jan. 3, the average monthly cost for center-based care in Utah County for children ages 4–5 years was $626.01, according to data from Care About Childcare, which is part of the Utah Office of Child Care. In Salt Lake County, the average monthly cost for center-based care for children ages 4–5 was $629.82, and in Davis County it was $606.11. KC Hutton, the program manager at the Utah Office of Child Care, said the reported average rates change continually based on the data in the system, which can be affected by a program updating their rates, a program opening and being added to the pool of programs being averaged and by a program closing and being removed from the average.

Scribner said families who need child care struggle paying for it, but child care providers, who are almost exclusively women, are only making poverty level wages themselves. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median pay for child care workers in 2017 was $10.72 an hour and $22,290 per year. The federal poverty level that year for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia was $24,600, according to the Federal Register. This year, it’s $25,100.

The Economic Policy Institute states in its 2016 “The cost of child care in Utah report that, nationally, child care workers’ families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers’ families (14.7 percent compared with 6.7 percent). In addition, a typical child care worker in Utah would have to spend 44.2 percent of their own earnings to put their child in infant care.

“And so there’s a disconnect,” Scribner said. “The families can’t afford to pay for the care, but the child care providers cannot afford to lower their rate.”

Emmett Van Leewuen smiles for the camera. Emmett’s parents, Destini and Travis, face many common child care challenges. (Destini Van Leeuwen)

Scribner said child care isn’t something the market can regulate, and child care is like education in that it needs to be supported through public entities because it helps the entire community’s economic productivity rise. She also said child care isn’t a lucrative business, so many people just don’t go into it.

Van Leeuwen said most child care facilities want upward of $1,200 a month for both of her 2-year-old twins and $1,000 a month for her 6-month-old.

“I feel that there needs (to be) more affordable child care or that the cost of living needs to come down so that working parents are able to afford child care, but not have to spend every waking moment away from their families in order to pay for that child care,” she said.

Availability

Another child care issue is availability. In 2016 there were 41,144 licensed or registered child care slots in Utah, according to a 2017 report from Child Care Aware of America, compared to an estimated 306,495 Utah children under age six in 2016, according to the United State Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. In 2017 there were 58,776 child care slots in Utah, according to a 2018 report from Child Care Aware of America; Utah census data for 2017 is not currently available.

Another child care option is relying on friends and family, but that can take its toll on relationships. Van Leeuwen said she asked her parents, who are in their late 60s and early 70s, for help watching her children when a babysitter quit without notice. However, after watching them during the day, her parents didn’t seem as enthusiastic about having them over on weekends and weeknights. She also had a friend help her, but she saw that friendship dissolve when her friend became stressed over watching Van Leeuwen’s children in addition to her own.

Still, Van Leeuwen said she loves her job and having a career is important to her, and she wants her children “to grow up seeing that if you put in the hard work now, the long run will pay off.”

However, Van Leeuwen added that in an ideal world she would love to be a stay-at-home mom and spend all her time with her children. 

Credibility

Scribner said the shortage issue can often leave working parents going to unlicensed or unregistered child care providers.

The Utah Department of Health Child Care Licensing office regulates and monitors child care centers and home child care providers under Utah Code 26-39, known as the Utah Child Care Licensing Act.

According to the Child Care Licensing website, licensed child care centers are provided in non-residential settings with regular care schedules. Requirements include Child Care Licensing background checks, caregiver training and a director who is at least age 21 and who meets the educational requirements found under section R381-100-7 of the R381-100 Centers Rule. Caregivers have lower education requirements and only have to be 16 years old. There are also at least two Child Care Licensing inspections every year, and the number of children allowed is determined by the facility’s square footage.

In contrast, registered care facilities are provided in either a center or a home, and they are not required to be licensed with Child Care Licensing. Additionally, if the facility provides care for less than five unrelated children or for less than four hours a day, it is not required to be regulated by Child Care Licensing. Even if these organizations have city business licenses, no Child Care Licensing inspections or background checks are conducted.

Despite their name, registered care facilities are also not required to be registered with Child Care Licensing. Heather Pressey, the office specialist for Child Care Licensing’s south region, said, “being licensed and just registered for (Child Care Licensing) are two different things.” For example, some people who are exempt from licenses sometimes need to be registered with them for other reasons, such as background checks for food stamp programs.

She also said if a facility or home that should be licensed isn’t, Child Care Licensing first needs to be contacted about it. From there, an investigator will visit the facility, and if a license is required, the facility will have 30 days to come into compliance or civil monetary penalties may be enforced. Under Section 6 of the Utah Child Care Licensing Act, facilities may be fined anywhere from $50 to $5,000 a day for problems that harm or could lead to harming of a child.

Additionally, the Utah Child Care Licensing Act states, “a person who provides or offers child care except as provided by this chapter is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.”

Mental health

The various burdens of child care can create an additional burden of mental health, particularly for women. Scribner said the “burned out mom” is almost a cliche in Utah that only becomes worse for working moms who carry both the burden of their jobs and running the household.

In particular, Scribner said there are some cultural pressures in Utah that cause guilt and shame for women who place their children in child care.

“They have professional aspirations, but at the same time, they feel a message (of), ‘This isn’t the right thing to do. Somehow, you’re harming your child, you’re letting your child down,'” she said.

However, she said children in high-quality child care situations “are doing fantastic” and women don’t need to worry.

“That’s something that we need to work on within our culture and society to make sure that we are supporting women, helping them have great options and then helping them feel good about doing what’s best for their own individual family,” she said.

Van Leeuwen said living in a community where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so prominent, she’s “definitely” felt shamed for working instead of staying home with her children, and she feels “a ton of guilt” for not being more involved in her children’s lives during the week, amplifying her postpartum depression.

The mental health costs aren’t limited to women, either. Scribner said she commonly sees men wishing they had child care options so their wives could work and they wouldn’t bear the entire financial responsibility for their families.

Women’s workforce participation

Child care issues can also affect both what types of jobs women take and how much they work. Scribner said child care is a “huge barrier to women being able to economically participate in the well-being of their families, as many choose to and many, many have to.”

However, she also said while Utah has the largest family size in the nation — Utah had the largest average household size in 2017, according to data company Statista — Utah women work in roughly the same percentages as women nationally or even slightly above.

For example, a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states in 2016, women’s overall labor force participation rate was at 56.8 percent, while a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research states that during the same year, Utah women’s labor force participation rate was 59.8 percent.

“It’s not true to think that Utah women are stay-at-home moms as a whole,” Scribner said.

Scribner added Utah women are more likely to work part-time than women nationally, though, which contributes to the high labor force participation rate numbers. The high number of young women working contributes to this as well.

She also said many of the people the Utah Women in Leadership Project interviewed for their “Childcare: What Utahns Need to Know” research brief said they haven’t pursued educational or work opportunities because they didn’t have child care solutions. This often results in women taking jobs which give them needed child care flexibility but pay less or taking jobs in what are traditionally seen as “women’s fields,” such as education, where they believe they will be working the same hours their children are in school.

Scribner said she doesn’t want to dissuade anyone from working in education, but many of those traditional “women’s fields” are low-paying, which ultimately contributes to the state gender-wage gap.

“That’s probably a huge part of the reason why so many of our women work part-time is because they can’t afford or they can’t find the quality, full-time child care options that they need to really pursue careers that would be more economically lucrative for them,” Scribner said.

Benefits for everyone

Van Leeuwen said she needs to focus “100 percent” while she’s at work.

“I need to work to provide for my family and if I’m constantly worrying about whether or not someone is going to be able to watch my children, (that) puts a strain on my day-to-day tasks that need to be completed at work,” she said.

Scribner said she believes everyone will benefit as employers become more flexible with child care options.

We’re going to have happier employees who are going to bring more value to their jobs because their child care issues aren’t holding them back,” she said.

Next: Exploring child care challenges for college student parents.

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