As child care providers recover from the pandemic and struggle to find qualified staff, state lawmakers are introducing a series of bills, with the support of both presiding officers, aimed at strengthening child care capacity in Maryland.
There are 855 fewer child care providers in Maryland than in March 2020, according to the Maryland Early Childhood Advisory Council.
During a press conference Thursday, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) said that what happens to children when they are younger than five years old impacts them more than what happens at any other time in their lives.
“We need to make sure Maryland’s wonderful child care system is as efficient and thriving as it was before the pandemic, with additional opportunities to invest,” Ferguson said.
The pandemic has highlighted a problem in the child care sector that is getting worse, child care advocates said.
Even before the pandemic, child care was not available to everyone who needed it because of its cost and limited availability. And nannies have been hard to find, in part, because they are some of the lowest-paying jobs in the country.
“The business model fails without investment,” Christina Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Childcare Association, said in an interview.
Having reliable child care is critical to addressing workforce shortages, especially among women, says House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).
The 2021 economy has experienced high labor shortages due to a mix of healthcare, caregiving responsibilities and a desire for higher wages.
“The package of bills takes the necessary steps to increase our child care capacity across the state, stabilize our workforce and keep our economy strong,” Jones said.
Improving Child Care Bursaries:
Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) is sponsoring a bill that would allow child care providers to presume that families applying for the state’s Child Care Scholarship Program are eligible and allow them to enroll in child care immediately while the Maryland State Department of Education reviews their applications.
And if MSDE determines that the family is ineligible for a scholarship that reimburses the cost of child care for low-income families, the family will not be responsible for paying for the application review period.
“The presumptive eligibility period basically becomes part of your application period, so as long as your application is reviewed by the state agency, you’re eligible for those subsidies,” Solomon said.
Costs during that presumptive eligibility period will be paid with federal funds, Solomon said.
Currently, it can take up to 90 days for MSDE to approve a child care grant application, Solomon said.
He said his legislation would simplify and streamline the application for childcare grants to ensure they are accessible to all families.
As the application now reads, “you almost need a master’s degree to figure out how to fill it out,” Solomon said.
Child care advocates criticized the scholarship program for being too confusing for families, especially those in immigrant communities, and criticized MSDE for not responding enough when families called for help.
Solomon’s bill would also allow families who qualify for temporary cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income to automatically qualify for the child care grant, as well as other benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing vouchers.
When a scholarship is approved, MSDE will be required to pay the full scholarship amount to child care providers within ten days.
“Suppliers get lost in this sea of paperwork, and if you’re a small business and you’re working on the margins, you get slowed down [scholarship] payments for two or three students can mean the difference between making a payroll or not,” Solomon said.
To increase the number of affordable child care slots, the Maryland Child Care Working Families Act, sponsored by Del. Pamela E. Queen (D-Montgomery), caps the cost of child care and allows families whose gross annual household income does not exceed 85% of the state’s median income to get subsidized child care. The median household income in Maryland is $84,805, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This proposal comes as Congress considers President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. The president’s plan would expand child care assistance so that most families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care and that families earning 75% of their state’s median income will pay nothing. The US House passed part of Biden’s plan, but most of the social programs in it appear to be permanently stalled in the Senate.
Supporting child carers:
To attract more workers to child care jobs, lawmakers are introducing a bill that would require the governor to include $16 million in the annual budget to offer retention and new-hire bonuses to child care workers on a first-come, first-served basis . in the fiscal year 2024.
Childcare providers face challenges finding enough workers because low pay and little job stability lead to high turnover. In a national survey of 7,500 suppliers, 78% said low wages were the most important recruitment challenge.
Median hourly pay for a child care provider in Maryland is $11.59, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
“We are losing programs and staff at an alarming rate,” said Senate Majority Leader Nancy King (D-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor. “As our local economy begins to return to pre-pandemic employment levels, the need for safe, quality childcare is of the utmost importance.”
To increase access to and availability of childcare, Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll) is introducing a bill that would establish a grant program to support child care providers who are at risk of closing their businesses within the next year. It would require MSDE to award grants — of $1,000 and $50,000 a year — within three months of a child’s caregiver submitting an eligible application.
“This provides a stability for children and parents that we have longed for since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fry Hester said.
The federal U.S. rescue plan distributed $309 million to Maryland specifically for child care stabilization grants to help providers stay open. The Maryland State Department of Education plans to distribute the remaining funds by March.
In his proposed fiscal 2023 budget, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) the federal funds supplemented by $50 million from state funds for child care stabilization grants.
Lawmakers are also proposing a bill that would provide interest-free loans for capital expenditures to child care providers who participate in the Child Care Scholarship Program. The funds will go first to childcare centers in rural areas, communities with high poverty rates and childcare deserts, Solomon said.
Another proposal would provide specialized child care for children younger than six years old who have developmental delays, physical disabilities or delays in social, emotional or behavioral functions. This would require the governor to put at least $45,000 into the annual budget for each child participating in this program.
Last month, state Comptroller Peter VR Franchot, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, called on Hogan and state lawmakers to invest $500 million from the state’s surplus to help child care providers and make child care more affordable.
When asked how the state would fund the programs outlined in the child care legislation package, Ferguson pointed to the state’s $4.6 billion surplus.
“We’re in a fortunate place to be able to invest resources in the things that matter most — child care infrastructure is one of those critical sectors that we need to strengthen for Maryland’s economy to recover,” Ferguson said.
Peusch said this list of child care bills is “amazing progress.”
“We are vital to the economy and we need to rebuild a much stronger system and this is definitely a step in the right direction,” she said. “Now we have to sustain it … it’s not a one-and-done — it has to continue to support families and the children and the economy.”