Editor’s note: “Work in Lincoln County” is a series of stories exploring the labor shortage in Lincoln County. Throughout the series, the LCN news team will take in an in-depth look at the impact of the labor shortage has had on childcare providers, schools, restaurants, healthcare industry, construction, and farming. We ask business leaders, staff, and patrons to consider the roots of the labor shortage in their industry, and importantly, what it would take to improve the situation.
“Work in Lincoln County” will run in The Lincoln County News periodically throughout the fall. If your business or organization faces a challenge hiring and retaining workers and you would like to be interviewed for this series, email Raye S. Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While the country-wide labor shortage may be a novel experience for some industries, many child care providers see it as an opportunity to draw attention to struggles that existed long before the pandemic.
Child care workers are difficult to find and retain in Lincoln County, as housing has become scarce and jobs that require less training and experience, often offering significantly higher wages lure people away.
“When we pay minimum wage and the pizza (place) next door pays $15 or $16 an hour, we can’t compete with that with such a big staff,” Coastal Kids Preschool Executive Director Lisa Conway said.
Coastal Kids Preschool, operating out of Damariscotta for 26 years, is the largest provider of preschool special education in the Midcoast, with one third of its licensed slots dedicated to children with diagnosed disabilities.
Conway said that Coastal Kids, a nonprofit, can only afford to pay minimum wage to many of the employees that make up its full-time staff of 40.
Even for trained professionals with experience and/or a college degree in education, low wages are the norm, which Conway said dis-incentivizes young people from pursuing valuable training and joining the child-care workforce.
“It’s hard to justify going to college and getting a college degree to come out on the other side and make $13 or $14 an hour,” Conway said.
Erla Beausang, a co-head teacher at Coastal Kids since 2020, has years of experience and training in preschool education, and she has two daughters that enrolled at Coastal Kids.
Beausang is from Iceland, where preschool is subsidized by the government and the wages and benefits for early childhood educators are far more sustainable than in the United States.
In a phone interview on Monday, Aug. 30, she said that without her husband’s income, she wouldn’t be able to afford her mortgage and childcare costs with her career in childcare.
“Especially families that have young kids, if you need to be paying for childcare, even though you might get a discount if you work in childcare, it’s still not really doable if you have anything else you need to pay,” Beausang said.
With a relatively consistent staff, Coastal Kids is in a better situation than many childcare providers in Maine. According to surveys conducted between March and April by the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, of 470 licensed Maine childcare centers, 44% are operating at a deficit, 43% cannot meet the demand of growing waitlists, and 58% are understaffed.
Hannah Wayda, director at Boothbay Harbor YMCA’s Harbor Montessori School and Childcare Enrichment Center, said that their program has tried to fill staff positions in the school and the infant program for over a year.
While people have applied for the positions, most of them failed to follow through. Wayda said that this is likely because these individuals are only applying to satisfy unemployment requirements.
All individuals in Maine collecting unemployment must conduct at least one work-search related activity each week, which can be anything from participating in a workshop hosted by the Department of Labor’s CareerCenter to applying for a job for which they are reasonably qualified.
However, there are a number of other factors in Lincoln County and in the state that exacerbate the staffing struggles; one of the most ubiquitous is difficulty finding appropriate and affordable housing.
Conway, who runs her own bed and breakfast, said that while she typically attempts to capitalize on summer months by filling her rooms with tourists, the competition for apartments is so tight that she is exclusively housing local professionals this summer.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for a childcare worker in Maine is $13.84, or $28,790 annually.
According to data from Maine Housing Authority, the income needed to afford a median two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln County is $19.80 an hour or $41,177 annually.
In a phone interview on July 22, Sally Farrell, childcare director with the Central Lincoln County YMCA, said that one childcare staff member left Lincoln County at the end of July because they could no longer afford the cost of their rent and could not find another apartment.
Even if childcare centers were not struggling with staff, it is likely that it would not be enough. Conway said that if Coastal Kids doubled the size of its program, it would fill without a problem.
Farrell said that even though the YMCA currently has a full staff, its waitlist is up to 40 families looking for quality infant, toddler and preschool care.
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, as of March 2021 Lincoln County had 48 childcare providers, including camps, facilities, and home-based providers. That is the least of any county except for Piscataquis.
“We could easily fill two more classrooms with children, but we need the space and quality staff to be able to offer these vital programs,” Farrell said in an email on July 21.
Despite low wages, health concerns, and the new challenges of attending to social distancing measures, childcare centers like Coastal Kids and the YMCAs reopened in 2020 to support the state’s essential workforce
Farrell said that while other entry-level jobs and even unemployment was more financially lucrative during the pandemic, the YMCA retained many of its employees.
One employee told Farrell that they could not step away from the work because of their connection and sense of responsibility to the children and their parents.
Conway said her own staff had displayed a similar degree of resilience and dedication.
“We have a staff that’s really incredibly committed to our students and to teaching,” Conway said.
She added that while the pandemic made childcare professionals’ jobs more difficult, it has also made them more visible to the public and legislators, resulting in support through the CARES Act, Coronavirus Relief Funds, Payroll Protection Program, Maine Economic Recovery Grants, and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations.
Conway said that these funds buoyed Coastal Kids and its staff through the pandemic, but they have no way of knowing how long the support will last.
Maine lawmakers like Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, have introduced a number of bills that would establish the kinds of long-term, structural supports that might enable facilities like Coastal Kids and the YMCAs to expand their programs and make their wages more competitive, but only time will tell whether these changes will impact the supply of qualified early childhood educators.
While none of them are sure of how long it will last, Conway, Farrell, and Wayda all said they were glad that more people than ever before are paying attention and advocating for childcare services.
However, they are concerned that highly qualified staff like Beausang will become increasingly scarce should long-term, structural supports for the profession never materialize.
“Of course we all say this job is obviously not just about the money, it’s about passion and love for kids, but unfortunately that doesn’t pay your bills,” she said.