SALT LAKE CITY — When Tess Edwards' best friend needed to find a new child care provider when her provider gave birth several years ago, Edwards quickly jumped in to help.
"I was like, 'Oh, I could watch them.' And it kind of just grew from there," the Eagle Mountain mom said.
Since then, she's watched her nephew and several kids in her neighborhood. It's a popular form of child care for working parents in the Beehive State, where kids are abundant but affordable child care centers are less so.
On a typical day, she tends three or four kids.
"It's been nice because it's adaptable to my schedule, and I always make sure I never work past 4:30 (p.m.) so that I can help the kids with their homework and just get that stuff taken care of, and I don't have to work on weekends," said Edwards, who has three children of her own.
She said it's also an opportunity to do what she loves.
"I think my greatest skill is being good with kids, and I didn't want to do something where I had to leave my house. I wanted to be able to work from home, I wanted to be able to set my own kind of schedule," Edwards said.
Inspired by Utahns like Edwards, a lawmaker is proposing a bill this session that would allow home child care providers to take care of up to six kids without a business license. Current law allows them to take care of no more than four at once.
"Here in the state of Utah, we know that many parents are struggling to find child care that there in some cases are waiting lists, and that finding affordable child care is also an issue. So we were looking for things that we could do that would help," said HB271 sponsor Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan.
"And we're hoping that will increase the number of people who are available to offer child care. And we're hoping that, in many cases, an in-home child care can be less expensive than a brick-and-mortar day care, and again hoping that there can be some affordability with that," Pulsipher said.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Utah faced a significant gap in child care resources for working parents, according to the Division of Workforce Services. A report by the division in March found the state needs 274 more licensed-center child care programs and 1,258 licensed-family child care programs, which provide in-home care.
Pulsipher said it could also help parents who want to offer child care so they can remain home with their own children rather than having to go out to work.
The lawmaker noted that Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, came up with the idea for the bill. Birkeland used to manage a brick-and-mortar child care center.
Birkeland said that during discussions about the child care shortage in Utah, she felt that "some of the solutions we keep hearing are only adding to the problem."
Parents who receive a government child care subsidy receive a higher amount than the average daily rate at a facility, Birkeland noted, and so those who get that subsidy don't face difficulties getting into a center. But those with lower incomes who don't qualify for the subsidy can't afford child care with ease.
"And we wanted to try to find a way to help them," she said. "And I know that in-home child care is a great tool for a lot of local residents of Utah. Maybe there's a parent who stays home with their kids and they could use the extra money that child care could bring to them."
She wants to deregulate those who take care of a few kids in their neighborhood.
"I think if we could deregulate that aspect of our child care system here in Utah we will have a lot more affordable options for people and have a lot of people receiving an income that they otherwise wouldn't have had," Birkeland said.
Child care centers must comply with many regulations, she said. But six kids is a "standard" number of children in households in Utah, where fertility rates have always been high. For many home child care providers, the four-child limit doesn't allow them to make a sustainable living.
"If you're only charging $4 per child and you only have four kids, it's not really enough money for those who need work but don't want to work outside of the home," she said.
Birkeland said she knows several women in her community who watch children from their home and "there's just a stress there. They want to follow the law ... but there's a lot of concern," Birkeland said.
'A house where kids feel safe'
As with any job, Edwards said that she and her own children face good and bad days while she takes care of other kids. Her youngest son has "never known anything different," she said.
"I think he likes it. It's weird on days when we don't have anybody, because sometimes like on Tuesdays and Thursdays I don't have anyone, and it's just kind of like, it's weird for him. It's like, 'Who am I supposed to hang out with?'" Edwards said.
She said the kids she watches have become her youngest son's "best friends." A home-schooled kindergartner whom Edwards has watched for the past four years will start school full-time next year, and Edwards says she will miss her.
"Because I kind of start to think of them as they're my extra little people," Edwards said.
She started watching her nephew when he was an infant.
"I was like, I can't let him go to like a big day care. It's really important to me to have a house where kids feel safe and loved and they're the most important people," Edwards said.
Allowing home child care providers to take care of up to six kids is "a good idea if the person in charge has that capacity," according to Edwards, who says she is always at capacity with the number of kids she can take care of.
"I have a huge capacity for chaos. I grew up as the oldest of five kids, and so I have a big capacity for chaos and just like busy houses and lots of kids, and that's fine with me," Edwards said.
She said most who have an in-house day care likely can also "manage the crazy." Larger groups of kids also form their own play groups.
"And it's so fun for me to like watch them grow up, the kids in the neighborhood. It's a joyful thing. It's exhausting, too. By nine o'clock, I am dead. But still, I wouldn't not do it because I'm tired," Edwards said.
"If there's someone that you trust your children with, then your child should get to go to them, if they're capable and safe," she said.