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'Waitlist after waitlist after waitlist' | Families struggle to find reliable, affordable day care

Mecklenburg County officials say demand for child care is increasing but on paper, there isn’t necessarily a supply issue. The issue boils down to staffing.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As more companies welcome employees back to the office, many parents are trying to find reliable child care. With COVID-19 policies, teacher shortages and rising costs some parents are struggling to find the right fit.

Natasha Cruz has spent her entire maternity leave worrying about what will happen when she goes back to work.

“It’s been four months of continuous day care searching every day,” Cruz said.

Finding open day care for her two youngest kids has become a full-time job itself.

“I got a list and I called all 20 -- it was waitlist after waitlist after waitlist,” she said. “We’re talking day cares that are 15 miles away from my home so it’s already an inconvenience.”

Mecklenburg County officials say demand for child care is increasing but on paper, there isn’t necessarily a supply issue. County-wide, there are more than 25,000 spaces for infants to 5-year-olds at child care centers, and only 17,000 kids are enrolled this year.

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The issue boils down to staffing.

“We’d love to serve more kids but we don’t have the ability to serve them because of the staffing shortage," Mark Eberhardt with Thompson Child & Family Focus told WCNC Charlotte. "Ratio is really important in child care and being safe, so we have enough staff, great staff, to serve about 70 to 80 kids."

If they were fully staffed, the center in west Charlotte would be able to enroll 50 more children. They’re raising salaries and offering bonuses to try to incentivize their open positions.

Even if a family can find open spots, the cost is often the biggest barrier. The average annual cost for infant care in Mecklenburg County is more than $14,000. That’s more than a lot of families can afford so Mecklenburg County has several programs in place to try to make it more realistic for families.

“The first five years of child care on average in Mecklenburg costs $65,468. More than the cost of tuition for four years at UNCC or UNC-Chapel Hill,” Janet Singerman with Child Care Resources Inc said.

The county contracts Child Care Resources Inc. to help families sort through options and manage the subsidy program available to eligible parents.

Subsidies and programs like Meck Pre-K are the biggest investments the county has made into solving the child care crisis. Meck Pre-K is free and registration for next year is open. For the first time, there is no income cap for eligibility although families with the greatest needs will be prioritized.

Singerman says there’s a bigger financial issue playing out nationwide.

“Teachers are being poorly compensated; they can’t afford to earn less, and child care program operators can’t charge more because parents can’t afford to pay more,” she said. “So, we’ve got this issue that impacts access to high-quality child care.”

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She thinks breaking the cycle will require changes on the federal level -- changes so many families are desperate for.

“It’s a constant worry and if we don’t have reliable care for our children, how are we supposed to be reliable for our employers?" Cruz asked. "One needs to balance with the other."

In the meantime, families like the Cruzes are doing whatever it takes to find a spot. They’re moving from Charlotte to Shelby where a day care center had room for both boys.

“I started crying and I told her what do I need to give you, do I need to give you a deposit, pay for the first month," Cruz said. "At that point, I was like I’ll pay you whatever I need to pay you as long as I know my child has day care."

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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