By Claire Trageser / Investigative Reporter

ContributorsRoland Lizarondo Published: January 24, 2022 at 6:00 AM PST

In May 2021, Ally had just graduated from SDSU with a degree in child and family development and in the market for her first job. She was hired immediately by a local preschool.

“This is the first and only job I applied to,” said Ally, who does not want to reveal her full name or the name of the school to protect her job.

But her college education did little to prepare her for what she ended up walking into.

First off, Ally was supposed to be joined by another teacher, which six months later still hasn’t happened. Instead, Ally and her classroom of toddlers are left with a rotating cast of substitute teachers. New teachers are in the classroom so often that the kids have to wear name tags.

And sometimes the subs themselves call in sick, or just don’t show up.

“It's really hard to implement a routine for them as much as I'm trying,” she said. “I've noticed how attached they are to me. And when other subs come in, it's kind of like stranger danger.”

Preschools and child care centers everywhere are dealing with a massive staffing shortage. Online job sites show more than 200 local child care openings—some even offering signing bonuses. For example, the YMCA of San Diego County, the largest child care provider in the county, is looking to fill more than 128 jobs, despite raising wages over the last year.

The problem is much worse than the general labor shortage trend. Child care jobs have historically been undervalued and poorly paid, and the pandemic has just piled on. Child care providers have to compete with retailers and restaurants for workers, but those other sectors can raise starting wages.

Plus, people are still worried about catching COVID from unvaccinated toddlers.

Ally is making $15 an hour — minimum wage in San Diego. The low pay and stress made her feel like quitting soon after she started her job.

“But I think I've definitely become attached to the kids and I see how new faces really affect them every day and how the consistency of me being there every day has switched around a lot of behavioral problems,” she said. “So it makes it a little bit harder for me to want to just give up.”

Large disparities

The pay is almost universally low for child care workers in America—the majority of whom are women of color. On average in California, preschool teachers make less than half of what kindergarten teachers make. And more than a third of child care workers live below the federal poverty line.

People who run child care in their home also make the equivalent of $11 an hour, according to one study.

“We're asking so much for $12 an hour when you could be making more at McDonald's or Starbucks or Target, where you don't have to have to do such an emotionally demanding job,” said Caitlin McLean with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

“If we want to make sure that families have access to these services, we have to make sure that this is a good job that people want to do. And we have not been doing that.”

Raising pay for these workers might seem like an easy solution, but there’s a domino effect. Child care centers operate on razor-thin profit margins, so raising pay would mean raising rates for families.

And the rates are already more than many families can afford—the average cost in San Diego County is $360 a week for infants and $304 a week for preschool.

A likely scenario is a vicious cycle in which child care centers raise rates and families drop out because they can’t pay them, said Holly Weber, the owner of Magic Hour Preschool in Mira Mesa.

“There's no way that I can continue to ask parents to pay out of pocket at a higher weekly rate than I already do, I'm already within market rate,” she said. “It's just running a fine line between parents choosing to not even go back to work because their child care expenses are so exorbitant.”

Weber was looking to hire more staff in the fall, and paid to post ads on websites like ZipRecruiter. But the few responses she received were from people with little experience asking for $20 to $22 an hour— way beyond her payroll budget.

Lynn Twork, the CEO of Kids On The Go Family Service Center in Chula Vista, said she’s looking to expand and offer more spots to children.

“We have a waitlist, but we can't admit children until we have more staff to accommodate opening classrooms,” she said. “In the last almost two years now since the pandemic hit, we have had ads out constantly and the pool of qualified candidates is just so small, nobody's really applying for the positions.”

When she does receive applications, something strange happens—only one out of 10 applicants actually shows up to the first interview, Twork said.

“Which is shocking,” she said. “We're doing a lot of forward planning to have somebody come to the interview, it's like a big roller coaster ride. That's not fun.”

Twork said she was able to hire someone early on in the pandemic who seemed like a great fit.

“They were a great teacher,” she said. “They worked, I want to say, two days, and then they got scared of COVID. Because I think actually working on the ground is totally different than what the picture is.

"COVID guidelines have had a significant impact on the way we have to navigate teaching and caring for children.”

Lots of regulations, little assistance

One reason why child care centers have such thin profit margins is because they are so tightly regulated. There are fire safety codes, CPR requirements, and square footage requirements, all of which come with a cost.

But the biggest cost is the number of teachers required per student.

Unlike in an elementary school, where a teacher can be alone with a large room of kids, child care centers in California must have one teacher for every four infants and one for every six toddlers, which means a lot of staff.

Up to 80% of the total expenses at child care centers are teacher pay and benefits, according to a survey from the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance.

Centers often use the older classes to subsidize the cost of running infant classrooms, but the recent move to bring universal transitional kindergarten to California will upset that balance.

Despite being so highly regulated, the child care industry receives limited government subsidies or other assistance.

There’s no child care insurance or public support for most for people who have to pay for early care and preschool, said Donna Sneeringer, the chief strategy officer at the Sacramento-based nonprofit Child Care Resource Center.

Like Ally, Briana Mendoza also recently graduated from SDSU with an early childhood education degree. But she has no interest in working at a preschool. She instead is looking at jobs where she would work one-on-one with children in crisis, which would pay $21 to $22 an hour.

“People aren’t going to apply to jobs where you aren't being recognized,” she said. At a child care center, “I mean, you are constantly running. I'm telling you, I would be sweating in the classrooms, whether I was changing diapers, carrying babies, feeding them, sweeping. It wasn't just child care in there. It was sweeping, housework, doing laundry.”

Meanwhile, Ally, who is solo teaching at a local preschool, is trying to hold on, but isn’t sure how long she wants to continue.

Considering I'm doing the job of two teachers right now at minimum wage, it's really discouraging,” she said.