PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Tampa Bay parents tell ABC Action News they’re in the middle of a childcare crisis. Thousands of families are on waiting lists as they scramble to find places for their young children to be cared for while they work.
Sophie Sandelin is getting a lot of extra time in with her kids. The Clearwater mom has spent 7 months looking for childcare for her daughter Ava and her son Ezra. She’s even looked across three different cities.
“I checked up in Safety Harbor, up in Palm Harbor, over in Dunedin and none of them had availability,” she said with a sigh.
In Pinellas County alone, the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County estimates more than 3,000 children are currently on waiting lists for childcare.
“One of the schools said they are two years out on their waiting list,” Sandelin recalled from one of her phone calls.
Stefanie Van Riper has been dealing with similar issues, “It’s really, really, really tough finding childcare,” she said with frustration.
Van Riper finally found a spot at a licensed in-home childcare, but that’s after she called more than 40 places looking for a spot for her kids. She spent a month and a half relying on babysitters so that she could continue to work.
“You can’t expect your employer to not have an employee so they can take care of their kids for 6 weeks, but babysitters are expensive too,” she added.
ABC Action News Reporter Sarah Hollenbeck went to Facebook to ask parents about this problem and nearly 140 people weighed in on the topic. Some of you asked if the pandemic is causing a shortage in spots.
ABC Action News pulled the numbers in Hillsborough County. Pre-pandemic in late March of 2019, there were 1,072 childcare facilities. This spring, there are 1,047. That’s 25 fewer child care facilities now compared to pre-pandemic, according to Hillsborough County Government leaders.
In Pinellas County, there were 693 child care facilities open pre-pandemic in April of 2019. There are 634 facilities now. That’s 59 fewer child care facilities now compared to pre-pandemic, according to the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
Yet, while there are fewer facilities open, child care experts tell ABC Action News that the bigger problem is staffing. They say existing child care facilities don’t even have enough staff to take on the number of kids they’re licensed for.
Lindsay Carson, the CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County says that’s impacting infant, toddler and two-year-old spots greatly. “About 40% of our providers have a waiting list due to staffing shortages so that represents 300, 400 providers throughout Pinellas County with a waiting list,” she elaborated.
It’s concerning for Lynn Gibson. Gibson heads up Lynn’s Tender Touch Daycare. Her licensed at-home daycare has operated in Pinellas County for 34 years.
“I really think this is a crisis,” she explained. “If I could go bigger with my childcare, I would. The problem is I’ve even been offering part-time work to people and can’t get people to come in and work.”
Gibson says she receives as many as 15 calls a day from parents looking for a spot. Gibson spends whatever time she can talking to lawmakers and asking for help.
“We’ve taken it all the way to congress trying to say we need help out here because without it we can’t keep going,” she said.
Child Care Coalitions on both sides of the bay are working to train more early learning workers while making the jobs more attractive.
“We offer sign on bonuses, free training, we connect them with potential employers,” Carson added.
In Hillsborough County, Media Relations employee Hilary Zalla tells ABC Action News some childcare facilities that once had multiple infant rooms now may operate only one infant room, and programs offering multiple VPK classes are struggling to offer even one class. One provider Zalla spoke with recently had 44 children registered for VPK in the fall but has been able to hire only one credentialed teacher, which means that 33 children will have to look for VPK slots in other programs, which are equally short-staffed.
Hillsborough County Child Care Licensing, in conjunction with CareerSource Tampa Bay recently offered a first-of-its-kind virtual job fair for child care professionals. 21 child care programs participated in this inaugural event. Hillsborough County is looking to offer additional job fairs this year.
Time is of the essence to get more workers trained. The Early Learning Coalition says 17% of child care centers in Pinellas County are at risk of closing because of staff shortages, which would put parents in an even bigger pickle.
Sandelin is still working to figure out her options. “I may just consider homeschooling. I don’t know what to do at this point,” she said. “I’m hoping that more people will see the need and fill the need.” Carson says her organization has helped connect many families with ELC vouchers and yet many can’t find spots to use the vouchers because of the waiting lists.
Gibson hopes more people will follow her lead and open home daycare businesses. While the businesses have to be licensed and often need higher insurance policies, Gibson says it’s been a wonderful career for her to excel at and follow the families in her care for years.
Currently, there are 256 at-home childcare centers in Pinellas County.
Gibson suggested people interested in opening at-home childcare businesses can participate in a $25 session to learn how to start the business. The next session is May 25 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Anyone interested can contact Lisa at 727-275-6493 or Paula at 727-275-6483.
The lack of childcare is also leading to nationwide impacts. The United States Labor Force now has 1 million fewer women working than it did when the pandemic began and childcare has been cited as one of the major reasons why, according to the National Women's Law Center. The cost of childcare now amounts to 31% of the average income for women.
Pinellas County parents, grandparents and guardians can find information about available child care centers HERE.
Hillsborough County parents, grandparents and guardians can find information about available child care centers HERE.