Two daycare centres in Labrador say consistently low pay in their sector means they are struggling to retain staff, a chronic issue that's become an acute one as the centres have been forced to limit the number of children in their care, despite the high demand for spaces.
Pumpkin House in Happy Valley-Goose Bay has closed rooms daily for the last three weeks, the president of its board of directors told CBC News. Each room closure keeps at least 16 children out of care that day, with the centre missing out on those children's daily fees it depends on to operate.
"It's all because of recruitment of staff, and we just cannot get qualified staff to work there. It's been very, very difficult. We can't staff Pumpkin House," said Rhea Dale.
At the Lab West Child Care Centre in Labrador City, it's a similar situation. Rooms are sometimes closed due to the same shortages, as early childhood educators take higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
While some staff have left for mining-related jobs, said centre administrator Bernie Mullen, with a starting wage of $14.50, the daycare can't compete with the retail and food sectors. She recounted the recent loss of one particularly dedicated staffer.
"It was a huge loss for our centre, and she left here to go work at McDonald's. And as she was leaving, no exaggeration, the tears were pouring down her face, because she did not want to leave," said Mullen.
"That's what we're faced with all the time. We can't compete with McDonald's and Walmart wages."
High demand vs. low wages
In the last two years, each centre has moved into a new, larger space, thanks in part to funding from the provincial government — the province spent nearly $200,000 on the Lab West centre to help renovate its space, which opened in 2018, while it injected $900,000 into Pumpkin House's new centre, unveiled in 2019.
Both centres can now each accommodate more than 90 children, in theory.
Parents need this. Our community needs this. - Bernie Mullen
"It's been virtually impossible to staff the building to allow for the number of spaces that we have," Dale said.
Even if they could consistently hit capacity, Dale said demand far outstrips what Pumpkin House can provide.
"We still have a wait list, miles long, because this community is desperate for licensed child care. Parents are desperate for child care."
Adding to the crunch, Pumpkin House has only four spots for two-year-olds, and no spots for children below the age of two, with Dale saying in their non-profit model the numbers simply don't add up, as infants require more supervision.
"It's too expensive to run, but in and of itself, that's ridiculous. People need child care at least at a year old, and we don't offer that either, because it just wasn't financially feasible," she said.
Dale and Mullen agree with what many others in the sector have recently spoken out about: that low wages, typically beginning in the $14-an-hour range, are out of step for the essential service staff are providing, and the pay is hamstringing recruitment and retention.
"Parents need this. Our community needs this. But something has to give, so that the educators are making a livable wage," said Mullen, adding her centre has pooled resources to offer incentives like benefits and extra leave days, with little success.
Neither Labrador campus of the College of the North Atlantic offers early childhood education, and Dale said that amplifies the staffing shortages in the Big Land.
"I think even though early childhood education wouldn't be a big moneymaker, I do think we should offer that in Goose Bay, and even if we only graduated a couple a year, that would be a very positive step," she told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.
Pumpkin House has hired four new ECEs, but government paperwork has slowed down the process to getting them into the centre by more than a month, Dale said. When they do start, Dale hopes for some relief, although she wonders how long that sense will last.
"It's been a tough situation. We see a light at the end of the tunnel, but we're all nervous about it, for sure."
Province speeding up consultations
The province does prop up early childhood educators' wages, and recently increased the amount it provides up to a maximum of $15,900 per educator per year, depending on hours worked and level of education. An operating grant program that delivers money to regulated centres to help with fees to make care cheaper for families has also been bumped up.
"We've made significant changes over the last three or four years," said Education Minister Tom Osborne.
Osborne said he understands recruitment problems are "a little more acute in Labrador," and said that is playing a role in his department speeding up timelines to review the entire early childhood education system.
That mandatory review is due in 2022, but Osborne said the first phase of it — consultation between the province and regulated and unregulated daycare providers — has been moved up to begin early in 2021.
"I do understand the challenges in Labrador, in particular, and that's the reason we are looking at the consultation process early," he said.
Osborne while he doesn't know of any immediate solution to the problems, he is open to hearing from those in the sector to make change come quicker.
"If there's a magic answer that can be provided today, I'm prepared to listen to that as well, but I think the answer will come through consultation and through listening," he said.
In early 2021, $25-a-day daycare is also set to kick in, fulfilling a leadership campaign promise from Premier Andrew Furey that amounts to a $12-million annual investment in the sector.
But those on the ground at the centres say affordability doesn't amount to much when the centres themselves can't consistently stay open.
"You have to have educators to be able to do that. So it does start with the educators. It starts with recognizing the importance that they are," said Mullen.
Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador