Parents are tired.
Take nursing assistant Tammi Lewis, who missed weeks of work and $7,800 in wages when her toddler's child-care classroom in Plymouth suffered COVID outbreaks.
Or Kelsey and Christian Dahlager, who pay $3,000 a month for child care for their two children — a sum greater than community college tuition and $300 more than a parent making minimum wage would take home in a month — yet still find themselves some days juggling working from home with watching an infant and toddler because caregivers are sick.
Parents across Minnesota and the country have spent two years plowing through the rubble of an already patchwork child-care system that was further compromised by the pandemic, shutdowns and historic unpredictability. Many thought they would be able to carve out a new normal in the new year, but the omicron variant has added another round of uncertainty.
The plight of low-wage and front-line parents who don't have the option of working remotely is the most severe. But even high-wage earners blessed with paid vacation and sick days said they too struggle with the high cost and declining number of slots for Minnesota's 354,000 children 5 and younger in need of full-time care.
For Lewis, a single mother of three, it meant paying $1,200 over six weeks to keep her son's slot open even when his classroom was closed during quarantines. "I didn't get paid for any of the days that I missed at work, so I got very behind on my bills," said Lewis, who is using a food shelf to get by and praying her application for rental assistances comes through.
An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found the government spends about $10,000 on each school child between the ages of 5 and 17 in Minnesota. But it spends just $900 per child in the first three years of life and $2,500 per child ages 3 and 4.
So families carry the bulk of costs tied to early child care. There is help for the poorest, but not enough. In 2018, the Wilder Foundation found that 58% of eligible poor families didn't receive child-care subsidies because of a lack of public funds.
"Given the [high] cost of child care versus [low] wages, that mismatch has not been beneficial to parents trying to pay for child care while working," said Jodi Harpstead, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).
A lot of Minnesota parents left jobs to care for their kids as a result of the pandemic, she said. "It's simply everyone dealing with COVID and cases coming and going and having different quarantine periods and trying to make all that work in your life. It's hard to keep a job when that is happening."
About 76% of all parents in the Twin Cities work outside the home and 12.9% of all Minnesota children live in poverty, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
With limited public funding, the result is often a "go-it-alone" child-care system that frustrates families, short-staffed employers and child-care centers alike — one that is stressed almost to a breaking point, parents say.
"The number one issue that comes up related to day care is cost," said Laura Gorke, the ACT program director at Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis.
"The majority of [our] families are single parents. And typically on that low social economic status, the idea of being able to afford child care is not always an option," Gorke said. "And certainly, during the pandemic, day cares have had a lot of problems with staffing."
Therefore, availability, even when parents can afford the care, has become a bigger issue.
DHS research shows fewer child-care providers are entering the market. Plus, like other low-wage industries, they are facing staffing shortages exacerbated by burnout because of COVID-19 stresses.
For example, in 2021 alone, Minnesota lost a net 494 in-home child-care businesses, eliminating slots for 10,217 children, DHS found. The closures represented jumps — from 323 in 2020, and from 420 in 2019.
Today, there are just 6,700 in-home or family providers statewide, compared with 14,300 in 2000. And while larger child-care centers in the state grew, the bump was slight — from 1,600 businesses in December 2000 to 1,815 last month.
Combined, there is a decrease in availability and that "makes it very difficult" to find affordable day-care providers — especially in rural areas and for infants, Harpstead and others said.
To help, federal and state governments allocated $958 million last year to shore up Minnesota's hobbled industry through 2024.
The public funds materialized in monthly grants to Minnesota child-care providers, early learning scholarships for parents, regular and temporarily enhanced child tax credits, and boosted wages for underpaid day-care workers.
More federal aid for the industry could arrive if Congress passes the Biden administration's Build Back Better bill. But the rescue plan is far from certain. Another source of aid for parents — expanded child tax credits — expired at the end of 2021.
The Minnesota Business Partnership, Chamber of Commerce and Itasca Project are working with Gov. Tim Walz's Great Start For All Minnesota Children Task Force to study ways to help stressed parents receive more paid leave, emergency child-care referrals and other family-friendly benefits.
But public and private responses to the child-care crisis are often criticized for being splintered, choppy, unsustainable or not addressing the finer annoyances of a strained system.
"My family is so privileged … but we still face issues with America's work/child-care system daily, whether it's the exorbitant cost, everyone constantly being sick and then trying to take care of kids while working from home, or dismal staff salaries that lead to turnover," said Dahlager, the mother in St. Paul who hands over a big chunk of her paycheck for day care. "There's no winning at this system, only getting by."
The Dahlagers had their second child during the pandemic and tried to work from home while caring for their infant and then 2-year-old. The Target marketing executive and her husband lasted a month juggling diaper changes, breastfeeding, work, Zoom meetings and conference calls.
They finally enrolled the children in Jardin Spanish Immersion Academy in their neighborhood.
"Paying that much for day care, you'd be shocked to learn that many day-care employees are making minimum wage. That is heartbreaking in and of itself," Dahlager said. "I just feel like the day-care system in America is supposed to be there to support the working industry in America. But it doesn't seem like those systems jibe together well."
No need to tell that to Tilnika Parker.
The single Minneapolis mother of two weathered riots in her Lake Street neighborhood after George Floyd's killing and then had to quit her certified nursing assistant job in St. Paul when COVID-19 hit in 2020 because the subsidized child-care center that she used shut down for six months.
When the center reopened, Parker went back to work as a nursing assistant making $17 an hour. She thought she was set. Then the center had several outbreaks, sending her healthy children into quarantine for 14 days each time and forcing Parker to miss work.
"We'd be at home more than he was at day care," she said. "It's been hard. I struggle."
She was warned she could be fired. Now she squeezes in night shifts when she can find babysitters. She has borrowed money to pay the rent.
Before the pandemic, whenever a child was sick, a parent would miss a day or two of work. Now, quarantine rules and continual outbreaks can mean missing a week or two of work and pay.
Sheilah Howard, career services director at Jewish Family and Children's Service, said, "Every week we are working through these issues with our [parent] clients."
Last week, the state reduced quarantine times for child-care centers, welcome news for child-care centers, parents and employers alike.
Some 62% of surveyed Minnesota Chamber of Commerce members reported that child-care shortages were problematic and impeding company growth.
"For us, child care is just a huge issue," said Karen Edwards, spokesperson for the Plymouth-based candymaker Maud Borup, which operates a factory in Le Center, 70 miles south of the Twin Cities. "During COVID, a lot of the day-care centers here shut and many never opened."
The company lost so many workers that it struggled getting holiday candy orders to customers such as Target, Nieman Marcus, Hy-Vee, Michaels and Party City.
To stem attrition, the company bought land next to its factory to build its own child-care center.
"With the current shortage of child-care options," Edwards said, "our goal is to ease the burden on our working parents and help us retain our workforce."