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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah families are paying more for child care and also facing long wait lists because of a shortage of space for infants and toddlers, according to state officials, daycare providers and parents.
“They’re getting squeezed and I can understand their frustrations,” Tracy Gruber, director of the Utah Office of Child Care, said of parents. “The rates have gone up pretty significantly.”
The nonprofit organization Child Care Aware puts the average annual cost for a Utah infant in daycare at $12,249. Parents paying for both an infant and a 4-year-old child would pay $18,645 a year.
“Nothing prepares you for this,” said Carla Pruitt, a mother of two who lives in Cottonwood Heights. “It’s almost like sticker shock at first.”
Right now, Pruitt is on maternity leave caring for her newborn son. When she returns to work, she and her husband expect to pay about $1,600 a month for a child care for their two children.
“We’re talking like mortgage payment kind of expensive. We’re talking college tuition kind of expensive,” she said, “and it really took us by surprise.”
Pruitt enjoys her work as a communication manager for a construction company and says staying home isn’t an option because she needs the insurance benefits her employer provides.
“You’re having to choose between, well, do I want to ease the burden of child care costs or do I want my kids to have health insurance?” she said.
The median cost for infant care in Utah has jumped from $533 in 2006, to $760 in 2017, a 43 percent increase, according to the market rates studies conducted by the state.
During that same time period, daycare for a 5-year-old climbed 41 percent, from $400 to the current level of $563.
“We see that some families, especially single parents, can pay upwards of 30 percent of their income to childcare,” Gruber said. “That doesn’t leave very much room to pay for food and housing and transportation and all of those other needs that need to be met.”
Emily O’Neill, an elementary school teacher and mother of three from American Fork, says child care quickly becomes unaffordable for families with multiple children.
“All three of them could go to the day care. I only send one,” she said of her children. "Because if I send three, I’m paying more than I pay on my mortgage.”
At one point, O’Neill was paying $1,200 a month for two kids in child care. Now, her older two attend the school where she teaches, allowing her to avoid paying for day care for them during the few hours before and after school.
One possible solution that would help many Utah families, she says, would be full-day kindergarten.
“As an educator, I would love it,” she said of the educational benefits of all-day kindergarten. Adding that, as a parent, “it would save me a whole year of daycare.”
Child care is used more when the economy is good, Gruber said. But as the general cost of living increases for Utah households, daycare owners also pass along the higher prices they are paying for food, utilities, security and employee wages.
“It really is pricey. It’s pricey for these families. It’s pricey for us,” said Jody Zabriskie, who owns multiple child care centers in Utah County. “It is really, really hard now to have a quality child care center.”
Zabriskie’s four locations of A to Z Building Blocks operate as both daycares and preschools and have more than 400 children enrolled. She says there are more expectations than ever before on child care providers.
“Your children are not just going to be babysat,” Zabriskie said. “They’re there with professionals that want to be there and they want what’s best for your children.”
Every year, Zabriskie says she ends up writing letters to parents to explain why rates are going up. She says it can be a “very painful” process that frustrates parents and results in tough decisions.
“You have those middle parents that don’t get any help and now they’re forced to pull their children out of childcare,” she said of those not getting subsidies from the state to pay for child care.
Another part of the problem is a shortage of providers willing to take infants and toddlers, Gruber said, which is resulting in long waiting lists across the state.
For Zabriskie, the waiting list stretches into January or February for all four locations.
“You do not make a profit, typically, in your infant and toddler classroom,” Zabriskie said as a possible reason that some daycare providers don’t offer care for infants.
The financial burden could be keeping kids away from daycare centers. Fifty-one percent of Utah children under age five have a child care need, yet only 15 percent of them are cared for in a regulated center.
“There’s a lot of unregulated care taking place throughout Utah,” Gruber said. “It’s really hard to get your finger on how many there are because they are flying under the radar.”
A recent survey by the University of Utah found that 43 percent of parents noted difficulties in finding affordable care, and 30 percent of respondents said either they or their spouses had reduced their work schedules because of child care issues.
The 2017 Utah Early Childhood Services Study says that, due to cost, the “lack of child care is often identified as one of the most significant barriers to employment.”
“I think the biggest challenge is just the overall high cost and the share of one’s income that goes to child care if you’re not eligible for a child care subsidy,” Gruber said. “And I think at some point that issue is going to have to be addressed.”
Possible solutions for Utah families: