The New York State Capitol in Albany. The State Legislature is seeking to...

The New York State Capitol in Albany. The State Legislature is seeking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to combat a shortage of child care workers. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

ALBANY — The State Legislature is seeking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep child care centers open in a crisis that is straining many families and their budgets, and also is a drag on the state’s labor market.

A shortage of qualified child care workers, many of whom have left for better-paying jobs in retail and in restaurants, has created an odd mix of empty, unused child care rooms at centers that also have waiting lists, according to legislators and advocates.

Proposed legislation seeks to subsidize their pay, which on average starts around $32,900 a year. The bill now being negotiated for the 2024-25 state budget also would create tax breaks for parents and guardians so they aren’t forced to stay out of the workforce to care for their children.

“We really are at a crossroads,” said Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), the deputy majority leader.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The State Legislature is seeking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep child care centers open in a crisis caused by a shortage of child care workers, many of whom have left for better-paying jobs.

  • The shortage has created a mix of empty, unused child care rooms at centers that also have waiting lists, according to legislators and advocates.

  • Proposed legislation seeks to subsidize workers' pay, which on average starts around $32,900 a year. The bill also would create tax breaks for parents and guardians so they aren’t forced to stay out of the workforce to care for their children.

She said centers have closed and child care workers are often collecting poverty-level wages while average-wealth families in high-cost areas such as Long Island are paying $15,000 to $30,000 a year for child care.

“Right now, we really need to stabilize the system,” Solages said. The state funding is needed in part because temporary pandemic recovery aid from the federal government is expiring.

“For some reason, we as a society have not recognized that child care is an essential service and it needs to be funded,” she added. “The cost can’t fall only on the parents and workers.”

Tackling the issue has uncommon bipartisan support for a major budget item, but it comes at a high cost.

“The proposals range from gimmicks aimed at suburban voters to new entitlements,” said Ken Girardin, research director for the Albany-based fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy. “Both would lock New York into new, permanent spending instead of reducing the cost of delivering care.”

The proposals

The State Senate and Assembly budget proposals released last week focus mostly on providing funding to combat the shortage of workers as well as to help centers improve their educational programs and upgrade their facilities.

The Democratic-led Senate’s proposal includes $220 million more for a workforce retention grant program — bringing the total to $500 million — to attract and retain workers at higher salaries. The Senate majority also wants to explore ways to expand coverage for after-school programs.

The Assembly also would increase the worker retention program to $500 million, add $5 million for after-school programming, now at $100.8 million, and require local social service organizations to provide additional night and weekend hours to serve working families and homeless children in temporary shelters.

The Senate and Assembly are also looking to expand the state’s universal prekindergarten programs to more schools.

The Assembly’s Republican minority also has proposed ideas. They include tax breaks to open more child care slots on nights and weekends and a waiver from state regulations to allow for child care “pods.” These pods would be unlicensed and unregulated day care centers run by parents who share resources, supervise children and hire tutors.

The Republicans said child care costs are equal to a second mortgage for many families, if families can afford the care at all.

“Child care is not a want, child care is not a luxury,” said Assembly Republican leader Will Barclay, of Pulaski. “Child care is a necessity.”

Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square) said a lack of affordable child care contributes to rising child poverty rates and “demands urgent attention.”

Would the plans work?

The state is in the midst of a four-year $7 billion commitment to bolster child care. That includes $125 million to make child care more affordable and increasing the income eligibility for state subsidies to families of four making as much as $93,200.

Recently, a Cornell University study found two out of five households with children statewide have a member who doesn’t work outside the home because of the high cost of child care.

Russell Weaver, director of research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations lab in Buffalo, said the legislation and funding of the last two years, as well as temporary federal pandemic aid, haven't stemmed the lost child care workers and centers.

“We’ve had a year of a year of Band-Aid solutions,” Weaver told Newsday. “Now the Band-Aid has fallen off and the wound looks worse than before.”

Pete Nabozny, policy director of the Children’s Agenda advocacy group based in Rochester, said child care providers report the same dilemma. “They say, ‘I have a classroom that is closed because we have no staff for it and we have a wait list.' ”

Some warn the new proposals aren’t a match for the need, either.

State Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) said his own Democratic conference’s budget proposal fails to adequately address the “massive child care deserts from Buffalo to Brooklyn.” Brisport said the Senate’s budget “rolls back on our commitments to child care” by proposing just half of the funding the conference promised two years ago would be secured by this year.

In the meantime, staffing shortages have left thousands of child care slots empty statewide, according to the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a lobbying group on children’s issues.

“Unfortunately, while all three budget proposals commit to maintaining New York’s historic levels of investment in child care assistance, none include a permanent, sustained investment in the child care workforce,” the center said in an email. “This failure threatens to derail all the state’s progress toward stabilizing the sector and making care available for more children and families.”

The Empire State Campaign for Child Care, a group of 100 child care centers, also said the budget proposals are short of the need, but a start.

“We commend the Senate and the Assembly for including $220 million in additional funds for child care workforce retention grants, bringing the total investment in the workforce to $500 million,” said Shoshana Hershkowitz, of the Empire State Campaign. “While this falls short of the $1.2 billion that is needed, it is a critical investment in the ‘workforce behind the workforce.’ ”

The independent Citizens Budget Commission found in its research that high child care costs is one of the affordability concerns that are prompting New Yorkers to leave the state. The average annual cost of child care in New York City is about $24,000, the commission’s Patrick Orecki said.

The commission said state government should consider a range of options to determine the most-cost effective way to improve child care. The CBC said the state budget could save costs in several ways — such as more targeted use of school aid and reducing subsidies for economic development such as film and TV credits — and that could free funds for child care while avoiding tax increases.

“The issue comes down to setting priorities in the budget,” Orecki said.

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