Traverse City News and Events

No Kidding: Up North's Child Care Crisis

By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 29, 2018

The lack of professional child care has reached crisis proportions, causing havoc for Traverse City parents, employers, and child care providers alike.

At many local centers in TC, there are months-long waiting lists for child care for infants and toddlers; outside of town there are child care “deserts” where the closest licensed provider is miles away. Low wages, on top of state regulations that keep child care providers spending and scrambling to adhere, have made child care a scarce commodity.

Mary Manner, collaboration coordinator for the local Great Start program, says people expect child care to be cheap, and most aren’t willing or can’t afford to pay too much for it. That’s made it a low-paying local profession, one that many believe only someone completely dedicated to children would go into.

Manner recalls that one child care provider who worked out of her home had to close when she was told the risers on her stairs were too steep.

“They basically said you have to remodel your stairs, and she couldn’t afford to do it,” she says. “It’s these things that make sense from a code perspective, but in reality, don’t make a lot of sense.”

Manner says that in recent years, regulators have become less adversarial and more helpful with providers, in part because the increased regulations have caused a lot of child care to go underground.

“They’re just not getting licensed,” Manner says. “They’re just taking care of kids without licensing, so they’re just avoiding the whole thing.”

Local child care providers agree that it is a difficult and undervalued business. Beth Fryer and her daughter-in-law Anna Fryer run the Teddy Bear Day Care and Pre-School at two locations, one in Long Lake Township and the other at a new location on Fourteenth Street in Traverse City.

“If you’re downtown, you pretty much have only two child care center options within a close vicinity, and then those are full,” Anna Fryer says. “Pretty much anywhere you go, there is a wait list for infants and toddlers.”

Fryer says she and her mother-in-law pay themselves less so that they can pay their child care workers above-average wages.

What’s frustrating to people who work in child care is the disconnect between the esteem the job holds in society and the impact their work has on human development.

“It’s not a moneymaker by any means, because, again, we’re not recognized as being as important as we are,” says Fryer, who has worked in child care for 17 years.

Meanwhile, the lack of child care is also a problem for employers, who find they have trouble retaining female employees after the birth of a child.

Coco Champagne, senior vice president of human resources at Hagerty (employer of more than 400 locally), says her company has gone to great lengths to make life easy for new parents. The company offers paid maternity and paternity leave, graduated return-to-work hours so that employees can transition back into full-time work, and a wellness program for new parents.

That doesn’t solve how hard it is for parents to find child care once they return to work, however.

Champagne is working with other business and community leaders to bring more child care to Traverse City after Hagerty determined it would not be cost-effective to open its own in-house day care.

“It’s a challenge for working families and the lack of child care presents challenges for primarily women as they are entering back into the workforce,” she says. “We really need to come together as a community to help find alternatives.”

The dearth of day care is also a critical problem in rural areas, where licensed providers are scarce and wages are lower. McNabb, a first-year Frankfort city council member who made child care a platform of his campaign, says that’s caused many women to band together to help provide child care for each other, even though that’s not technically legal.

“Where do I start? We are a disaster area,” McNabb says. “Certified, qualified, safe, secure — that kind of childcare, unless you have it within your family, is very hard to find, especially for zero-to-three-year-old kids.”

This is an excerpt of a full-length feature in this week’s Northern Express. To read the entire piece, click here or pick up a copy at one of 700 locations in the region.

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