By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — Look for parents in Addison County and around the state this week sporting buttons that declare “This employee made possible because of daycare” and “Support Vermont’s economy, support quality childcare.”
These parents, along with other allies of early child development programs, are doing their best to draw attention to the necessity for up-to-date subsidies for families struggling to meet steep childcare costs, as well as the importance of available quality childcare in the state.
Organizers are calling the weeklong event a “virtual strike” — a sort of “what if” question. What if early childcare and education programs weren’t available? What if these programs, on which hundreds of parents in the county depend, were to close for the day?
The strike, coordinated by the Kids Are Priority One Coalition, kicks off Tuesday and runs through Saturday. According to Susan Hackett, the local coordinator for the strike and the regional director for a children’s advocacy group called Building Bright Futures, almost 1,000 buttons have been distributed to parents and allies around the county.
Organizers hope that the buttons will raise awareness about the link between childcare and economic development, as well as draw attention to subsidy eligibility guidelines that some childcare advocates say are out-dated and insufficient.
“There is childcare assistance,” said Ginny Sinclair, a referral specialist at Addison County Childcare Services. Sinclair helps families find childcare with one of the roughly 60 local home childcare providers or one of the county’s three state-licensed centers.
Subsidies are based on a family’s income, she explained, as well as a “service need” demonstrated if a parent is working, attending school full-time, or medically incapable of caring for a child at all times.
“It is not a generous program,” Sinclair said. Rates have not been increased since 1999, and she said a “whole slice of families, the working poor, might just barely be over qualifying.”
Childcare with a family home provider — a registered individual who can watch up to six children at a time — can cost anywhere from $120 to $180 a week. Licensed centers like the Bristol Family Center or Otter Creek Child Care Center charge around $220 a week.
Stacy Stevers and her husband, who live in Bristol with their two-year-old daughter, both work full-time. Stevers, who worked in childcare for nine years before moving to her current job at Easter Seals in Middlebury, said she’s been excited about the virtual strike since the event was in the planning stages.
“For middle-income people to be able to afford childcare is just really outrageous, and for some people out of the question,” she said. She and her husband currently pay over $800 a month for their daughter’s daycare at the Otter Creek Child Care Center.
“It’s really an issue for our family,” Stevers said. She explained that she and her husband would like to extend their family — but that childcare costs for two children are just too steep.
Stevers said that she also hopes the virtual strike draws attention to the struggles that childcare centers and home providers face to provide quality childcare.
“Nonprofit childcare centers can’t afford to provide their employees with benefits,” she said, and employees who work in childcare are often not compensated in a way that allows them to afford childcare themselves.
This, Sinclair said, is because the “true cost” to care for children is often higher than the rates that childcare centers can charge — meaning that centers and homecare providers struggle to make ends meet.
FEWER CHILDCARE PROVIDERS
It’s the reason, Sinclair said, that the number of home childcare providers in Addison County has dropped in the last five years from roughly 90 providers to between 60 and 65.
This means that, cost aside, care can be difficult to find in the first place. Currently, there aren’t enough providers for infants — children age two and younger — in the county, Sinclair said. Fifty percent of the parents coming through her door are looking for precisely that kind of childcare.
“There’s a lot of frustration around that,” she said. “For some families, there is frustration around the cost of it. But the bigger frustration is not being able to find quality infant care in your geographic area.”
Sinclair, Stevers and Hackett will all be buttoning up this week — as will Johanna Vaczy, the director of the Otter Creek Child Care Center in Middlebury.
“There have been other efforts to raise awareness about the importance of early childhood programs, but this is the first really focused type of activity that’s been a statewide initiative,” she said. Vaczy said she’s confident that most of the parents of children who attend the day care center will participate in the strike.
Sinclair admitted that, “given the financial climate at the moment,” she’s not sure how effective the virtual strike will be — but according to Hackett, drawing attention to the issue of childcare in this election season is a strong way to start encouraging change.
And Hackett said that, so far, the response she’s encountered for the strike has been a warm one.
“I’ve seen … an extreme amount of enthusiasm about this,” Hackett said. “It’s vibrating throughout the state.”