Day-care squeeze hits rural families

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2014 - 4:43 PM

With few options, parents give up jobs; others get help from employers

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Nobody had an opening as far as Marshall or Willmar — both a 45-minute drive away. Steinbach got on waiting lists “behind people who hadn’t even conceived yet,” she said.

When Steinbach’s boy was born, her husband — who had just earned a degree in computers — planned to stay home with their son. The couple didn’t find a way for them both to work until a relative tipped them to an opening at a child care in Granite Falls.

“You just don’t realize until you actually experience it firsthand just how bad the shortage is,” said Steinbach, community development director for the city of Montevideo.

Large parts of rural Minnesota don’t have enough child care for working families. Finding a place for newborns is especially difficult. And it’s not just a parenting challenge, it’s an economic problem.

More than one in 10 parents statewide, and one in five poor parents, report that child-care problems have kept them from getting or keeping a job in a given year. When parents can’t work for lack of baby-sitting, businesses struggle to fill jobs, young mothers and fathers miss out on precious wages and a thin rural labor force gets thinner.

“How could it not, if you have good employees and they don’t have anywhere to put their children?” said Ann McCully, executive director of Child Care Aware. “We still have a pretty good population of folks that use grandma, and auntie and neighbors and that kind of thing, but most of those folks have to work too.”

David Clusiau, owner of a car dealership in Hibbing, sees his employees miss shifts because they can’t find steady child care. “What I hear is that my valued employees can’t come to work, because they have no place to leave their children today,” Clusiau said. “They really have no choice.”

Many businesses are trying to adjust and fill the child-care gap in some way. Digi-Key, an electronic parts distributor in Thief River Falls, offers extra cash to day cares that will extend their hours into the evening for second-shift workers. The Gardonville Telephone Co-Op in Brandon is opening its own day-care center.

The problem in Montevideo became so severe that the city helped pay for Trisha Hering, director of the nonprofit Kinder Kare, to add a room at the early childhood center on the south side of town to serve 12 infants.

“If you have a child right now, you have to quit your job, because there is nothing available,” Hering said of the area around town.

She will open the infant room in September — all the spots are full.

Market failure

In Minnesota, 74 percent of children under 6 have both parents working, compared to a national average of 65 percent.

As a result, demand for day care across the state is deep, but somehow, there’s not enough supply. The market for child care in rural parts of the state, especially infant care — isn’t working. Profit margins in child care can be as low as 10 cents per child per hour in the Twin Cities, and rural child-care businesses often operate at a loss.

The new infant room in Montevideo, on its own, will lose money, Hering said. Even with $10,000 from the city to build and equip the room, it will run $2,125 negative per month at $140 a week per infant, she said.

“The need is so dramatic out here, that if there’s a way to make it happen, we’re going to make it happen,” she said.

Overall, the nonprofit will be able to break even. Hering is raising rates slightly on preschool children, who require less staff to care for. Also, the school district discounts Kinder Kare’s rent, while the city and county together will pay $18,000 of the $24,000 annual lease.

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  • Trisha Hering runs a Montevideo child-care program called Kinder Kare that is at capacity with 64 children.

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