By Lisa Allen
“It is impossible to find child care,” says Tiffany Hall. The Asheville resident has a lot of personal experience behind that claim — she is the mother of four children, ages 2 months to 14 years.
“There is no such thing. I’m relying on different friends and family each day,” Hall continues. “Thankfully, they aren’t charging the outrageous amounts you see on Care.com and places like that. Some [providers on those platforms] are charging $15 to $20 per hour per child.”
Hall says the lack of open child care spots has gotten worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I called this place last week, and they said they haven’t been able to find someone to staff their infant room in two years,” she gives as an example.
According to the nonprofit Buncombe Partnership for Children, the county’s child care workforce has fallen by almost 19% since September 2019. As a result, the partnership says, nearly 900 fewer children are enrolled in licensed child care facilities now than before the pandemic.
One potential way to close the gap, suggests Rob Thompson, is to boost Buncombe’s number of home-based child care providers. He’s the director of early childhood programs at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, which commissioned a study on the subject last year.
The resulting report, “Growing Home-Based Child Care: An Important Opportunity for North Carolina,” found that the state has significantly fewer spaces in licensed HBCC facilities than do other states with similar populations. In Buncombe County, the number of those facilities decreased from 48 in 2006 to only 11 in 2022.
“We have a dramatic shortage of child care options in our state,” says Thompson. “We have to boost our supply of providers.”
Home away from home
Home-based child care encompasses a variety of small-scale programs operated in residential settings. Not only do parents often prefer such options, Thompson says, but home-based settings can often provide more scheduling flexibility than commercial programs and can be more convenient in rural areas.
Local demand for these programs well exceeds supply. “I have 30 people on my waiting list for infant care,” says Alissa Rhodes, who runs A Sense of Wonder from her Fletcher home. “I’ve never had that many.”
What keeps Rhodes and other home-based providers from addressing the need? One limit is legal: North Carolina law limits HBCC facilities to caring for just five preschool-age children. “If they would just change the law to add just one more child per facility, that would help me and help families,” Rhodes says.
Regulation also can discourage would-be providers from getting started. The state pre-licensing checklist for HBCCs runs four single-spaced pages. Requirements cover everything from record-keeping and playground equipment to emergency procedures and staff training. Additional requirements vary by locality, such as setbacks or parking.
“Getting licensing can be challenging if you’ve never been licensed before,” Rhodes says. “It’s intimidating, especially for a young mother or grandmother who have never been in child care before.”
Providers find the process of licensing rigid, inconsistently interpreted and more aligned with center-based care than home-based options, according to the BCBSNC report. “Licensing quickly surfaced as a significant challenge for network providers and, in some cases, a seemingly impossible barrier,” the report reads.
Vouching for it
Licensing can have a financial benefit, as only licensed providers are eligible for reimbursement through state voucher programs. The process also gives the facility a rating from one to five stars, a marker of quality for potential clients.
But that voucher system is unwieldy for customers and care providers alike, says Jenny Vial, director of child care resources for the Buncombe Partnership for Children. Once they receive a voucher, parents must use them within 30 days. Families often can’t find a slot in time, and the difficulty increases for those with more than one child.
“Especially, when it’s an infant or toddler, it’s hard to find a spot. The lack of spots is really fueling the inability to use vouchers,” Vial says.
On the provider side, vouchers are of limited value for those just starting up. For the first six months a provider is in operation, Vial explains, reimbursement is capped at a third of the five-star rate.
“The subsidy pay gap for the first six months is a huge number. It makes it really hard for someone just starting,” she says. And even for established facilities, North Carolina pays a month in arrears, which can create cash-flow issues.
“I rarely get a request to take vouchers,” says Rhodes with A Sense of Wonder. Just one child at her facility currently uses the program.
Wages of care
Even with state support, providing child care is far from lucrative. In 2021, the median hourly wage in Buncombe County for child care workers was $11.26; Buncombe County’s living wage for 2023 is $20.10 per hour.
Rhodes had one employee for a while, and she cut her own pay in order to provide that employee with a living wage. She was able to do it because her five-star-rated facility allows her to charge a top rate: $255 per week per infant, or about $13,260 per year.
That’s a little over the Buncombe County average for home-based infant care: about $11,000 annually, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. But even that lower rate comes out to more than 18% of the county’s median household income.
Rhodes wrestles with the tension between charging what she needs to fairly compensate staff and remaining affordable for parents. “It takes a two-income household to afford my tuition unless they are subsidized, leaving out single parents and lower-income families. This is not OK with me, and it keeps me up at night,” she says.
Thompson with the BCBSNC Foundations says private funders like his foundation don’t have enough money to solve the problem of low pay. He argues that more support must come from state and federal government.
“We have a system is resource starved, and it doesn’t pay well,” he says. “It says something that a child care provider can double her pay by becoming a kindergarten teacher.”
The BCBSNC report notes that virtually all state funding, training and technical assistance aimed at raising the quality of child care is directed to center-based care. Buncombe County’s own investments also focus on centers rather than home-based care.
None of the three county commissioners on Buncombe’s Early Childhood Education and Development Fund committee — Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Martin Moore and Al Whitesides — responded to an Xpress request for comment.
Meanwhile, Thompson says his foundation is creating information networks for providers on how to run their business, train staff, seek licensing if possible and advocate for more governmental support.
And Hall, the mother of four, continues her search for child care. “I am on every single waiting list known to man that exists in Asheville, even all the way out to Mills River,” she says.