SALT LAKE CITY — Despite snow on the ground, many Utah families have turned their thoughts to summer — specifically, where their kids will be this summer while they work.
Even in pre-pandemic years, the hunt for summer child care started early, because lack of planning in February could mean missing out on care in June. Add in multiple strains on the child care system with COVID-19 restrictions, and this year could prove even more difficult to find adequate child care during the summer months.
Robynn Garfield, who works as a journalist for KSL Newsradio, said finding summer care for her three boys means spreadsheets, hours of research and careful budgeting.
"It's almost like a full-time job trying to coordinate all of that," she said.
In prior years, she ended up on waiting lists or found herself in a panic with no care lined up. The cost each summer was also burdensome.
"My paycheck pretty much just goes to pay for child care during the summer," she lamented.
Garfield stayed home or worked part-time for many years while her children were very young, putting her career on pause.
"More often than not, the conversation is, 'We can't afford you to go back to work,'" she said.
Utah has one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country, with child care barriers listed as one of the many contributors to the problem.
In Utah, 57% of two-parent households have both parents working. That number jumps to 83% in single-parent households with kids under the age of 6, and 98% when the kids are between 6 and 17 years old.
A March 2020 report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services showed two-thirds of Utah families with kids under 6 years old were not getting the child care they need.
Spots are limited
At the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake, President LeAnn Saldivar said every summer sees a rush of parents looking for care.
"On the first day of summer camp enrollment, you'd think a rock 'n' roll band was coming in town," she said. "Not everybody gets in and there are tears and there's begging and there's bribery and all kinds of things. Parents are often quite desperate to get their kids into these kinds of programs."
Normally they see about 100 families waiting for an opening in one of their facilities. This year they expect even more waiting, as COVID-19 slashed their capacity in half.
"I wouldn't be too surprised to see early waiting lists," said Saldivar.
The same is true at Promise South Salt Lake.
"We anticipate that there will definitely be waitlists this summer," said director Kelli Meranda. Even if they can utilize outdoor spaces this summer to abide by health restrictions, capacity could remain a barrier at this subsidized care program.
According to data from the state's Child Care Licensing Program, Utah child care options remained stagnant in 2020, dipping slightly at the start of the pandemic, but not seeing much growth in the last few months. Many facilities had to slash spots to keep kids and staff safe during the pandemic.
"We already have a capacity problem," said Ben Trentelman, director of Operations with Utah Afterschool Network.
Trentelman said many providers also cut jobs last year when they cut capacity. Gaining both those things back for summer sessions will not happen overnight.
"That means that we need to make sure that we have the staffing to meet that need, and that the programs are able to pay those people and bring them in, and that they're able to reassure them that they'll be safe in coming into work," he said.
Currently, it is not clear when child care providers will receive COVID-19 vaccines. Some have received them if they are associated with a school district. Most standalone child care centers and providers wait to find out when they will be eligible.
Capacity problems, COVID-19 means higher costs
Trentelman said ramping up capacity for child care also means higher costs, and it is likely parents will end up bearing the financial burden this summer.
Saldivar said the cost to operate at the Boys and Girls Club has increased. "It is much more difficult to hire and retain staff, and we are doing a great deal of sanitation," she said.
According to the American Camp Association, day camps nationwide cost, on average, $65 per day last year. That works out to $3,250 for 10 weeks of summer break, per child.
Here in Utah, child care facilities cost about $1,900 for that same period, and home-based care totals around $1,500 per child for the summer. A report from Lending Tree found center-based child care increased 27% in Utah during the pandemic.
"I think it can be overwhelming for parents," said Nune Phillips with Utah's Office of Childcare.
She explained that her office expanded financial assistance during the pandemic to help more families. In May, the income limit was increased to 85% of the state median income.
"For a household of four, that's about $65,000 annually. So those families who may not previously have been eligible for a subsidy are now potentially eligible," she explained.
Utah lawmakers have two bills aimed at easing cost and capacity burdens. HB271 would increase the number of children a child care provider can have in their home without having to obtain a residential child care certificate.
HB277 would expand full child care subsidies for families making 75% of the state median income and a partial subsidy for families making up to 85% of the state median income.
As for Garfield, she was hopeful the future of child care in Utah will get more innovative.
"I have dreamed about working for a company that would have an onsite day care. (It's) something that could facilitate more women working," she said.
There remains a level of uncertainty as the pandemic lingers. As vaccines roll out and more workplaces call parents back to the office rather than working from home, demand for child care could suddenly surge. All the experts we spoke with said parents should plan now and include a backup plan.
If you need help affording child care, you can explore state subsidy eligibility and apply at the Department of Workforce Services.