'A pandemic in its own right': Utah lawmakers looking at solutions to child care shortage

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(Carter Williams, KSL.com)



SALT LAKE CITY — For every dollar in revenue, child care providers spend 50 cents to run their businesses, according to one owner.

And when they try to expand, they encounter various costly roadblocks in licensing and zoning as they work with cities, Johnny Anderson, president and CEO of ABC Great Beginnings child care centers, told lawmakers during an Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee meeting Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Cost is just one barrier families and centers themselves face, contributing to a shortage of quality child care options in Utah and the U.S., experts told lawmakers as they prepare to look into the issue ahead of next year's legislative session.

Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University, said that while child care has historically been viewed as a "woman's issue," that is quickly changing.

"As we now know based on the research, child care, particularly high quality child care, but child care in general is important to men. It's important to children. It's important to families," as well as businesses, governments and economies, Madsen said.

"And it's important to address it, as it really will make the difference in Utah to our workforce that needs to be made, actually," she said.

Even before the pandemic, Utah faced a significant gap in child care resources for working parents, according to the Division of Workforce Services. A report by the division last 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.

In Utah, family demographics continue to change, with more single parents, more couples who need to work outside the home, and more variety in income and education levels, according to Madsen.

"So we don't have the luxury anymore to think that single story. Families look different, opportunities look different, and thinking about the policies that will impact more people in the state is what we need," she said.

Simon Bolivar, administrator of the child care licensing program at the Utah Department of Health, said lawmakers can address some issues by simplifying the language in statute governing child care "to allow us more flexibility when we talk about ratios, to make sure providers have flexibility in ratios but at the same time to make sure they don't have too many children."

He said the state also needs a system to account for each child in child care in order for researchers to get a "clear and accurate" view of the issue.

During the pandemic, child care centers "did their best to stay alive and keep the economy moving, but we could lower or take away the fees that child care providers will pay to become licensed," Bolivar said, as well as remove the cost of background checks for providers.

Jessica Lloyd, owner of Creative Learning Academy, said taking care of infants and toddlers is more expensive because more staff members need to care for them than older children. That's why some centers only care for older kids.

She said she wanted to expand two years ago and looked at the market near her Lehi home. She went under contract on two properties, but the City Council ultimately didn't approve a zoning change to allow her to open.

"And I was really unprepared for the amount of time, and work and expense it took to get my project just before the City Council," she said.

Lloyd said she recently closed on a property in Murray, which will expand her capacity by 150 to 175 children. It took 2 1/2 years to do so, she said.

Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic brought the child care shortage "to the forefront" of people's minds. She said she has employees who couldn't return to work due to pandemic-caused closures because they needed to take care of their kids, "so they choose to be out of the workforce."

"This is a pandemic in its own right — the fact that we do not have high quality child care to the extent that we need it," she said.

A proposed bill in the 2021 general session would've 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. The bill passed the House but failed to make it out of a Senate committee before the end of the session.

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