Child care advocate figuring out solutions to 'terrifying' puzzle
January 18, 2023
Bryan Steinhauser admits he didn't really know a lot about the world of child care when he went to work last April for the Early Learning Hub Family Resources and Education Center at Linn-Benton Community College.
The program, which is funded by the state Early Learning Division, needed someone to connect – with the local business community, with funding sources, with people who need child care services, and that's where Steinhauser figured he could help.
Plus, he'd just had some first-hand experience on the consumer end.
He and his wife Chelsie (Burroughs) Steinhauser, a native of Lebanon, were living in College Station, Texas, when they decided to seek work in Oregon. They arrived in the summer of 2021 with their preschool-aged twins, Tom and Emma, and Steinhauser started looking for child care, since Chelsie was working full-time and he was continuing analyst work he'd been doing in Texas, on a part-time basis.
"I spent the better part of every day for a couple of weeks, just calling one place after another," he said of his search. "Everyone was just telling me 'no' or they weren't calling me back at all. A lot of them just told me, 'You're not going to find anything.'"
He made one last-ditch effort and "by pure luck" scored two slots, he said.
When the position at LBCC became available, Steinhauser was certainly familiar with one of the problems he needed to solve, although, he said, there was a lot he needed to learn.
"I was thinking, 'I don't know a lot about child care. I'm not really the nurturing type.'"
But the position was one of the first of its kind in the state, and the job seemed to involve a lot of project management, with which he was familiar.
"I come into it from an outsider's perspective," he said, noting that the majority of the staff have educational backgrounds in early-childhood education, whereas his degree is in history and political science, along with 11 years of military experience in the Marines, Army and National Guard, and work as a government investigative analyst.
Since his position was brand-new, it was "a broad mission," he said. He started by bringing himself up to speed on "just learning about how everything works, and then finding solutions that other states, other organizations have done to try to get businesses on board."
"I started in April and I just started at a sprint, meeting people, creating product, networking. That took forever."
Then, Steinhauser said, he set about creating an initiative to "reach out to the business community and try to educate them on the child care crisis and to get their help as well."
He had plenty of data to make his case, in addition to his own experience.
A 2020 Oregon State University study concluded that all of Oregon's 36 counties are classified as child care "deserts," some worse than others.
Speaking to Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce members at their monthly Coffee With Colleagues event last week, Steinhauser reported that according to 2020 Census data, Lincoln County had a shortfall of 775 slots in regulated child care operations, Benton County has 850. Linn County, he said, has a shortfall of 3,773.
"That data doesn't even reflect friends, family, neighbors or any other type of unlicensed, unregulated child care," he said. "Those are especially prevalent in rural areas."
But since joining the Early Learning Hub, he said, he's quickly learned that it's a "terrifying" problem. Business owners have confided that they can't recruit staff or they've lost employees due to child care issues.
The core problems are varied, but connected, he said.
In Oregon, the standard cost of base-quality child care is $13,000 per year, per child. By comparison, he said, the average annual tuition and fees at a public university in the state are just over $10,000. Between 2019 and 2020, while inflation rose 1.2%, child care costs jumped 5%, then grew by 41% during the COVID pandemic.
The shortage has hurt businesses, he told the chamber audience, noting that U.S. businesses lose an estimated $3 billion annually to child care-related employee absenteeism, and between 2016 and 2018, more than 2 million parents quit or didn't take jobs, or had to "greatly change" their job situation because of child care issues.
Lack of child care results in poor work performance, tardiness, absenteeism, retention issues and recruitment difficulties for employers, he said.
Government regulations and "problematic business models" create hurdles for would-be providers in Oregon, Steinhauser said.
"Inflexible" laws require such low child-to-teacher ratios – 4 to 1 for infants and toddlers, and "at best," 10 to 1 for older children, that the profit margins are "razor thin," he said.
To compound the problem, child care teachers are required to have two-year college degrees, but don't make much over minimum wage, while often working long hours.
"Those contemplating entering the field know this, to the point that 'full-ride' early childhood educatoin scholarships aren't used," Steinhauser said, noting that a cook at Red Robin in Albany will make a similar salary and a worker at the Target Distribution Center will make significantly more.
"The money they're making is horrible and there's talk about wanting to bump that up to a bachelor's degree," he said. "It's terrible."
The effects of COVID have also had extremely detrimental effects on the child care industry, he said, adding that Oregon took a much harder hit than Texas.
"I couldn't believe how much COVID affected this area because Texas barely shut down."
Steinhauser said that during the pandemic 80% of child care facilities shut down and many have not reopened, including many of the largest centers. Some 60% of parents reported experiencing a disruption in child care.
Many providers had to dip into personal savings to stay afloat, and 40% of programs that are open are not operating at full capacity because they can't hire enough staff. Many staff who were laid off or furloughed did not return, he said.
Steinhauser said that since arriving at the Learning Hub he's connected with large organizations such as Hewlett Packard, Samaritan Health and OSU, which are having trouble recruiting employees because of the lack of child care.
So he's been working on ways to help companies and parents to find solutions.
"What's the solution? We build more child care centers. With what? Where are we getting the money? The horrifying aspect of it is that even if we found the funding, we can't staff the ones that exist right now. It's pretty crazy."
So, Steinhauser, said, he's been working on more immediate solutions. They include:
-- Resource referral. He's built a database of child care providers and options so he can refer people – both parents and employers – to those who may be able to help them.
-- Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account, which is a pre-tax benefit account that can be used to pay for child care services.
-- Flexible and predictable scheduling offered by employers.
-- Employer-subsidized child care, in which employers help their workers pay for child care.
-- Employer-sponsored child care, in which employers can partner with existing child care providers or create child care services "from scratch," including on-site facilities.
The latter is only a possibility for larger employers, Steinhauser acknowledged, but "anyone can buy a slot at an existing child care center. You know, I pay you $200 a month and that slot is for my employee.
"It's a really easy way of helping out and it doesn't work with just certified child care centers. It can also work with home-based child care as well."
n Philanthropy – using charitable funding to incentivize child care workforce and education "incentivization," and subsidizing child care business development.
Steinhauser also asks parents to complete a survey that runs through Jan. 31 and is aimed to help "quantify" the situation with data. It is available at redcap.link/childcareSurvey2022-M.
He's also gotten out into the communities he serves to meet with elected officials, and he's worked to help would-be providers overcome bureaucratic hurdles.
He said his job is basically making connections – with anyone who can help, in some way, head off what he calls a "crisis."
"When I first came on board, I didn't realize it was this bad. And in the military, when something is bad, you take drastic steps. You start doing some really crazy stuff to restore the situation."