Raleigh News and Observer
For many parents of young children, receiving a pink slip means getting a new job: stay-at-home mom or dad.
As a result, day cares are facing a crunch. For many centers, the loss of children has been so dramatic in recent months they are forced to put teachers on part-time status or lay them off. Others have been combining classrooms, mixing toddlers and infants to make fuller classes.
“When parents don't have a job, they don't need us. It's as simple as economics get,” said Bob Greear, owner of dozens of day cares in North Carolina and Virginia, including three in Clayton.
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It's a far fall for an industry long perceived by parents as expensive and tough to navigate. In a matter of a few years, centers have gone from wait lists to empty cribs.
The loss of children is straining an already fragile industry, which operates under heavy government regulation and with thin profit margins. Industry experts say losing as few as a half-dozen children - and not being able to fill those slots - could rob a center of its profits for the year.
“We're cutting it so close right now,” said Nicole Desjardins, director of Children's Academy in North Raleigh. Since the loss of about five families over the last several months, Desjardins has had to cut hours for about half of her 19 teachers. More dropouts will force her to let a teacher go entirely.
Though the centers are finding it tough to survive, many parents are finding unexpected advantages. Some realize they're happier having their children cared for at home.
“While I'd rather have him in day care, it's nice that my son is getting to spend time with me and with his grandfather,” said James McEntegart of Raleigh. McEntegart lost his job at a coffee shop in January, and he's been watching his two-year-old son since. Putting him back in day care isn't an option unless he finds another job.
Despite a sudden loss of income, some parents are trying to keep their children in day care. Many are finding centers are working hard to accommodate requests to go part-time or take payments late.
“We're doing whatever we can to get by,” said Portia Watson, director of Childtime Children's Center in Cary. Watson's center lost about seven children last fall when parents lost jobs. Her center has about 40 empty slots.
“We're offering coupons. We're offering ‘night out' care. We want these children,” Watson said. “We don't want to put our teachers in the same boat as our parents: Out of work.”
Center directors are also getting unique proposals: some out-of-work parents are asking centers to hire them.
“They are out of work and getting desperate,” said Janine Russell, director of Kids R Kids in Wake Forest. “They don't realize we're in just as bad a shape and that it actually takes special training to do this work.”
The economic downturn has spared no one class. It has hit the parents who work manufacturing in the western North Carolina town of Hendersonville, forcing one center to lay off five teachers. Russell's center in Wake Forest, which mostly serves white-collar professionals, has also taken a hit. To avoid a teacher layoff, Russell is letting her staff go home early when they are not at capacity.
“When I hear on the radio that IBM is laying off more people, I hold my breath all day, wondering which parent is going to walk into my office next,” Russell said.
For many directors, when a child drops out of a center, it's not just the loss of revenue that makes them nervous. Since many programs are structured around educational lessons, directors worry that a child will lose progress he made toward school readiness. Others fear a fate far worse: the child ends up staying with an unfit caretaker if his mother or father finds another job.
Nancy Shepard, director of First Baptist Child Care in Jacksonville, said she's lost a third of her after-school children, about 20, in recent months.
“One little girl is walking home alone after school,” Shepard said. “Another is going to work with her mom. This is not ideal for children.”
If you lose a job and want to keep your child in day care, ask your center if it will allow you to reduce the number of days or hours for your child. If you are having trouble making weekly or monthly payments, some centers may allow you to set up a more flexible payment schedule.
The state does offer day care assistance for low-income, working families. In some counties, like Wake, there is a long waiting list for a voucher. Others, such as Durham, have shorter waits.
To see if you qualify for assistance, call your county department of social services.