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Low pay, strict regulations cause 'critical' child care shortage

At 7 a.m. every morning, Nicole White gets her children ready to leave. White spends hours in the car every day shuttling between two day care sites and her job in Traverse City.

Child care is hard to find in northern Michigan. Parents face year-long waiting lists to find someone to take care of their infants while they’re at work, and some are resorting to illegal providers they find on Facebook or Craigslist.

Experts say low pay and burdensome regulations are to blame for the rapidly declining number of child care providers, and with new regulations set to take effect later this year, the problem may get worse.




“The shortage has really gotten critical in the last two years,” says Mary Manner of Great Start To Quality, a nonprofit that tries to connect families with child care providers.


Over the last three years, Manner says 25 percent of northern Michigan’s child care providers have shut down. Some people have retired, while others have burned out.


“We pay them less than we pay animal handlers and nail technicians,” says Manner. “So it’s a big challenge to attract and retain people to the field of child care because the wages just aren’t there.”


The average salary for a child care worker Up North is only about $19,000 a year. People can make more money working at Meijer or McDonald’s, and Manner says that’s what many of them are doing. She says the exodus of child care providers is leaving working parents in a desperate situation.


“What’s the option?” she asks. “We know that sometimes the option is you pack up your kiddos into your car and you park your car close to where you work, and you leave them with books and toys, and you go out and check on them every few minutes. That’s what people do. They do that to keep their jobs.”


Credit Aaron Selbig
When Nicole White moved to northern Michigan last year, she was forced to put her daughter, Finley, in an unlicensed day care.

Nicole White packs her kids in the car every morning at 7 a.m. White has to leave her home in Leland early. Her baby daughter, Finley, goes to one place, while her toddler son, Forrest, goes to another. And then she has to get to her job as senior web editor at MyNorth in Traverse City. The three hours of driving every day – and the constant worry about child care – takes a toll.


“It’s kind of a lose, lose situation that I battle every day,” says White. “You don’t feel like you’re quite the mother that you could be, and you don’t feel like you’re quite the employee that you could be.”


White and her husband moved here from North Carolina last summer. Like a lot of people, they always dreamed of a life Up North. But White quickly figured out that finding child care, especially for an infant, was going to be a huge problem.

A year-long waiting list wasn’t going to work for White, who already had a good job lined up, so she found a provider for her infant daughter who’s not licensed by the state. Her toddler son Forrest goes to one the few large day care centers in Traverse City.


“It is heartwrenching to drop him off for nine hours and know that some lady is being paid seven, eight, maybe nine bucks an hour to provide what kind of care?” says White.


Tough regulations about to get tougher


Mary Manner says the pay is the biggest reason why child care providers are closing up shop, but she thinks more people might be willing to get into the business if it weren’t for a daunting – and expensive – list of government regulations that apply to child care providers.


“On the one hand, these are our kids so we want them to be safe,” says Manner. “On the other hand, sometimes some of the regulations don’t seem to makes sense in terms of what’s best for the parents and the kids.”


Even if you just wanted to just take care of a few children in your home, you’d be looking at a list of regulations that compare to starting a restaurant.


Mark Jansen is director of the child care licensing division of LARA – the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.


Jansen says new child care providers will have to get a radon test in their homes, an environmental health test and a medical release form. There’s also a heating system inspection, first aid training, CPR certification and a criminal background check – all of which you pay for yourself.


LARA estimates the cost of starting an in-home day care at anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000. There are grants and subsidies available to help but for that, you have to have an Associate’s Degree in child development.


"You can't go into it thinking that you're just going to babysit kids and put them in front of a television all day and have an income."

Jen Ray has been running a day care in her Traverse City home for 15 years.


“When I started 15 years ago, I started with the toys that I had for my own children and Hooked On Phonics, and I was proud of that,” says Ray. “Today, that wouldn’t fly.”


Ray’s day care is more like a pre-school these days. She has six kids in her house – the maximum allowed by the state – and they are all learning every day. Ray says people thinking about getting into child care need to realize that the game has changed.


“One of the things I see over and over again are people starting so they can be with their own children,” she says. “That’s admirable, however they don’t go into it with the mind of a business. You can’t go into it thinking that you’re just going to babysit kids and put them in front of a television all day and have an income.”


The child care crisis in northern Michigan might be about to get worse. Mark Jansen says that’s because of changes coming down from the federal government.


“Because the federal law changed in 2014-15, we’re now being forced, at the state level, to make changes to match up to the federal laws,” says Jansen.


One of the biggest changes is an expansion of criminal background checks. Now everyone in a child care household – not just the provider – will have to get a background check.


Great Start Collaborative says that’s likely to force more child care providers out of business.