Parents seeking daycare urged to reach out

New Brunswick parents desperately seeking daycare should put their names on a provincial waitlist, not just cue at local daycares, if they want to increase their chances of securing a spot, says the education minister.

As New Brunswick continues to struggle with a lack of daycare spaces, particularly for infants, Bill Hogan made the appeal Friday to parents as he announced the launch of an open call for proposals to daycares to create new spots.

"We created the provincial waitlist because what happens is, parents, rightfully so, put their names on multiple daycare lists," Hogan told reporters at the legislature. "They may have put their child on three, four, five different daycare waitlists because they need childcare space. So the only way we can have an accurate picture of how many spaces are required is if parents put their names on the provincial list."

A great need

In a technical briefing later in the day, officials from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said it was in a parent's best interest to put themselves not only in a cue for their daycares of choice, but the overall provincial daycare waitlist. Daycares can dip into the provincial waitlist to seek out parents and their contact information when a space becomes available.

The need is great. On the provincial waitlist, there are already 3,700 names of parents expecting a child or who already have one and need a space. And it's by no means comprehensive because many parents don't even know the wait list exists.

New Brunswick has been slow out of the gate on creating more spaces and lowering the cost to $10 a day, key goals of the Trudeau Liberal government when it forged a deal for $492 million.

It was the last of the provinces to sign a five-year daycare deal in 2021, which an independent research group, Cardus, said earlier this year led to "underwhelming results" in the first year.

The agreement was supposed to reduce fees for parents by half of the 2019 average fee by the end of year one, or March 31, 2022, and to an average of $10 a day by year five.

Now halfway through the deal, the average out-of-pocket childcare fee after subsidies for New Brunswick families is $12.82 a day, according to the department.

The deal was also meant to ensure more daycares would be designated with the higher standard of early childcare centres, with 3,400 new spaces created by the end of the agreement in 2027. That would be the equivalent of 680 new spaces a year, a target New Brunswick has failed to achieve.

A better fix?

Hogan said Friday's launch was meant to help fix the situation. Unlike an earlier call for proposals in January, which set a strict time limit of March to respond, the latest appeal to private and nonprofit daycares alike, including smaller home-based daycares, is wide open, with no end date.

The first call out resulted in 603 spaces being designated (although they often take up to a year to create).

The department wants to finish what's left of the 3,400-space target as soon as possible. Those spaces would be created on top of the 14,600 that already exist.

About two out of every three daycares in New Brunswick are privately run, a disadvantage when it comes to the way the deal was written.

The Trudeau government favours nonprofit daycares that are specially designated early childcare centres, with higher educational standards.

"The quicker we can distribute the spaces that we have to the citizens of the province, the happier I'm going to be." Hogan said Friday officials from New Brunswick and Ottawa continue to work on the terms of the agreement, which allow for some changes without renegotiating the entire deal.

"There's clearly a need in the for-profit sector that we can't fulfill in the not-for-profit sector," Hogan said. "I mean, if we could fill all the spaces in the not-for-profit sector tomorrow, I'd love to do that.

The quicker we can distribute the spaces that we have to the citizens of the province, the happier I'm going to be."

The department is using more up-to-date information this time around - it has pulled the latest 2021 census data, rather than the outdated 2016 census it used in January - and combining it with the daycare wait list to offer spots in different parts of the province, both on the francophone and anglophone sides.

"We've got a lot of data we can use now and designate the spaces in a more educated fashion," Hogan said. "The operators themselves are helping, telling parents to put themselves on the provincial waitlist.

And that way, if there's a need in the community, we have the provincial waitlist to go from. Because that's the only way we'd get accurate numbers."

A lack of childcare workers

Green MLA Kevin Arseneau was critical, saying one of the biggest problems was finding enough people to work in childcare.

The pay, he said, tops out at about $24 an hour and is too low. In his riding of Kent North, he's heard of providers, mostly women, quitting daycares to work at schools as educational assistants, which pays closer to $34 an hour.

But officials at the technical briefing said pay had improved markedly for daycare workers over the last few years, and that when it came to educational assistants, they often don't work as many hours, so the take home pay is often the same.

"We've also heard stories of people who have left their educational assistant jobs to go back to daycare," said Ryan Donaghy, the assistant deputy minister.

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner