Staffing shortage drives child-care crunch in Pincher Creek

Pincher Creek’s child-care facilities are operating well below capacity due to a persistent shortage of qualified staff, according to La Vonne Rideout, municipal director of community services.

There are 159 child-care spots available at the Pincher Creek Community Early Learning Centre between the town’s Canyon Creek and Sage facilities, whose combined staff looks after around 95 children. The facilities are running at 60 per cent of total capacity, leaving about 50 kids on each waiting list, Rideout told Shootin’ the Breeze last Thursday.

Caught in the middle are parents like Nellie Maund-Stephens, whose three-year-old son Kaysen started at Canyon Creek Friday morning — nine months after he was wait-listed at Sage.

“I can finally breathe a huge sigh of relief, knowing that I have consistent and good child care,” Maund-Stephens said Friday afternoon.

She and her husband, Mark, are both shift workers. Nellie is a veteran firefighter/paramedic at Pincher Creek Emergency Services, Mark the newest doctor at the town hospital, and the last nine months have been “a scheduling nightmare” for both parents.

“It was very hard trying to juggle our schedules,” Maund-Stephens said. “We had to call on friends and family a lot — often at the last minute.”

Maund-Stephens hopes to ramp back up to full time at PCES now that Kaysen is at Canyon Creek.

“Child care is something that seems to fall on women. It makes it incredibly hard for a woman to advance her career when she has to take time off to take care of her kids,” she said, qualifying that it’s just as hard for single dads.

Rideout agrees.

“The reality is that child-care is an essential service,” she told Shootin’ the Breeze. Town hall realized as much when Children’s World Daycare, which had been a mainstay in the community for decades, closed down in 2018. Child care became vital to Pincher Creek’s economic development when families started turning down jobs in town for lack of child-care options.

The town purpose-built Canyon Creek and Sage next to Canyon Elementary and St. Michael’s schools, leasing the facilities to the Pincher Creek Community Early Learning Centre when construction finished in the summer of 2020.

PCCELC has been up against a staffing crunch from the start, despite the federal government’s initiative to rein in child-care costs.

Alberta was one of the last provinces to sign on to Ottawa’s affordability grant, which seeks to deliver child care at $10 per day.

“The (provincial) government recognizes the need, but they’re not doing what they need to do for service providers to recruit and retain staff,” Rideout said.

Child-care programs in Alberta are licensed by the Ministry of Children’s Services, which sets certification requirements for child-care workers and minimum staff-to-children ratios at licensed facilities.

The ministry puts child-care workers through three certification levels: Level 1 workers need to complete an online orientation course that runs 60 to 70 hours. Level 2 workers have to finish a one-year program at an accredited post-secondary institution, while Level 3 workers need a two-year diploma or higher.

Rideout said staffing shortages are the norm when the industry rewards extensive training with perennially low wages. Level 1 workers made $16.75 per hour last January, with roughly $18 and $20 hourly wages for Level 2 and 3 staff, according to recent statistics posted to the Government of Alberta’s website.

The United Conservatives’ Child Care Grant Funding Program supplements employer-paid wages based on certification levels. At most, these “top-ups” add around $8.50 per hour for Level 3 employees, amounting to an average wage of $28.50 per hour starting this new year.

PCCELC pays better than the provincial average, but Rideout said child-care workers aren’t making a living wage even after the government top-ups.

“Child-care has always been provided on the backs of people who enter the field. And it’s mostly women who do the work,” Rideout said.

At a broader level, Rideout said the federal child-care initiative is filtered through a provincial framework that undermines child-care programs.

In order to receive affordability grant funding, child-care facilities must agree to cap fee increases at three per cent per year. For comparison, the national consumer price index rose by about 5.5 per cent, excluding food and gas, according to a December 2022 report by Statistics Canada.

“It’s always been about making child-care more affordable, which I get,” Rideout said.

The problem is that the province’s user-pay model can’t sustain the child-care industry over the long term. Public schools and hospitals don’t run on a user-pay model, because education and health care are essential services rather than money-making businesses.

The UCP “is all about supporting business in this province, but they’ve tied child care’s hands,” Rideout said. “I’d love for them to tell dentists that they can’t charge more money.”

In the meantime, Rideout said, the PCCELC would probably need to hire the equivalent of four to five full-time staff at Canyon Creek and Sage in order to clear their waiting lists.

Rideout then thanked the staff that have stayed on throughout the pandemic.

“It’s a hard job. It’s a really hard job. My hat’s off to our team: They do amazing work.”

Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze