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Wasatch Back parents struggle with infant and toddler child care

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Three-quarters of Summit County children live in homes with two working parents.

More than two-thirds of kids in the Wasatch Back have two working parents. Families say they need far more early child care options than they currently have.

Tony Baker and his wife work full-time and have a two-year-old and a 10-month-old in daycare. The family spends $2,200 a month for that care.

He said tuition has increased but he’s not particularly satisfied with the level of service. He said his kids get sick often, staff turnover is frequent, and he and his wife don’t know if their kids are being adequately prepared for school.

“With them recently raising tuition and going into an income-based structure, we don't mind paying more to help with the families that need it more, but we'd like to see a little bit more for what we're getting,” Baker said.

While Baker said his situation is less than ideal, other parents said they’re in worse shape – they can’t find anywhere for their kids to go. For some, that means they can’t work.

Summit County has 25 licensed childcare and preschool centers. Wasatch County has 10. That simply doesn’t meet local need – according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, 75 % of Summit County children have two working parents. In Wasatch County, it’s 69 %.

The DWS also reports that Summit and Wasatch counties have some of the most acute shortages of childcare in the state, coming in just behind Grand County.

In the Wasatch back, the most severe childcare shortages are for children under three years old.

Aristocats in the Heber Valley has a wait list of more than two years long for infants. For toddlers, it’s a year and a half. Owner Jacie Butters said she wants to expand but can’t hire enough staff.

"We could [expand] if the staffing was there, but unfortunately, we've had such a hard time finding staff over the last two years, it's hard to expand or even accept kids off of our waiting list because we don't have the staff to support that," Butters said. "As far as the younger students, like infants and toddlers, I really don't see how they could fix that without changing the ratio, which, unfortunately, we can't really change the ratio because four infants to one adult is already quite a bit."

Childcare center owners and managers said it’s hard to find qualified teachers and caregivers because the cost of living is so high. According to Summit County pay data from 2021, pay for childcare workers typically ranges from $13 to $17 per hour.

Summit County Economic Development Director Jeff Jones said the childcare industry hasn’t recovered from COVID. He said childcare wages can't compete with other service jobs.

“So, when you compare those wages to even things like fast food, I think somebody told me that Five Guys is paying close to 20 bucks, down in the junction, an hour,” Jones said.

In Canyons Village, Little Adventures Children's Center Director Valarie Vazquez said parents there pay $60 to $70 per day for infant care.

"The infants’ room, we probably have about 30 people on our waitlist between employees and locals," Vazquez said. "It's people that use us year-round that need infant care."

PC Tots is a non-profit child care center that serves 100 children – and has another 86 on its waitlist. It charges $1,275 a month for infants and $1,100 for toddlers.

Its Program Director, Melissa Mendez, said families who can't get into a program are cobbling childcare together and cutting back on work.

"So, I actually had a mom that came in, and she got on the waitlist, right as soon as she got pregnant," Mendez said. "She's been on the waitlist for 18 months. And she just got in, and she was completely teary-eyed, and she was like she's reduced her work. I think that's what most people have done if one of the parents reduces their work hours. So, she's only working two days a week, and then they hired someone to come in the house for the two days."

Mendez said PC Tots pays $18 to $26 per hour and provides benefits, including professional development for teachers. Still, she has one full-time teacher position open.

"It's definitely a challenge even with our pay scale and our benefits," Mendez said. "I have teachers that will interview, and I'll offer and they're like oh I have two more interviews, and I'll get back to you, and I'll let you know. So, the competitiveness of trying to hire is definitely there." 

Mendez believes quality childcare is essential and that the solution is to engage the community and local, state, and federal government to provide working families access to affordable care.

KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.