A daycare operator in the Saint John area says it seems like the government does not understand the urgency of what some are describing as a crisis in infant care.
There isn't a single space available for children under two years of age in licenced child-care centres across the province, said Erin Schryer, president and CEO of Origins Natural Learning Childcare in Saint John and The Woods, a nature-based learning centre in Quispamsis.
Schryer said she's been hearing from many "desperate mothers" who are disproportionately being shut out of the workforce as a result of the shortage.
One Fredericton-area mother told CBC she'd been on waiting lists at 20 child-care centres since she was three months pregnant, and no infant spaces have opened at any of them in the past two years.
In response, New Brunswick's new Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development said he sympathized and acknowledged it could be challenging to find a spot, but suggested there were spaces available according to a portal on the provincial government website.
Bill Hogan said the government is aiming to create 3,400 spaces over the next five years, but that's for the entire preschool age group.
Schryer said when she checked the portal there were a total of three spots listed across the province. She said she spoke to those operators and was informed the apparent vacancies are purposely not being filled for various reasons, such as a shortage of staff.
She said she was "ready to put shovels in the ground" on a daycare expansion in Quispamsis, but that plan is on hold. It's not tenable to expand or even maintain infant spaces, Schryer said, with recent increases in costs and operational grant levels unchanged since 2018.
More than 80 per cent of N.B. daycares are for-profit
In addition, a government policy introduced this month only allows new designated spaces to be created where the government deems there's a need and favours the creation of new spaces in not-for-profit facilities.
The term designated means those spaces qualify for fee subsidies to parents that were introduced earlier this year.
Schryer feels that's disrespectful and unfair, given that licensed for-profit daycares must charge the same rates, meet the same quality standards and abide by the same regulations as not-for-profits.
More than 80 per cent of the daycares in the province are for-profit, she said.
"This whole system has been built on the back of women entrepreneurs in our province. They're saying, 'You're last in line,'" Schryer said.
"It really is as if at this point we're being told, 'You were good enough then. You're not good enough now. And we're moving on without you.'"
Schryer said she's been told the federal government pushed for the provision favouring not-for-profits.
She said given the layers of bureaucracy, she's not sure when families will see any improvement in availability of infant spots.
"And our parents don't have time. They're trying to get back to work. They're trying to afford living today."
Shortage of infant spaces cause for concern
Hogan said he feels for parents in that situation, but points out the government is doing more than ever on the daycare front and wants new spaces to be high quality.
The new spaces will cost $53-million, he said, on top of the $70-million in annual government spending on child care.
"We consulted with parents and operators over the summer and early fall," said Hogan.
"We're looking at the areas with greatest need and will provide opportunities to open spaces."
A document on the Education and Early Childhood Development website indicates that one of the main "concerns and challenges" identified by families, daycare operators and other stakeholders was a shortage of infant spaces.