As El Paso child care providers struggle to restore services in a reopening economy, they’ve faced an unexpected source of competition for workers — the Fort Bliss emergency shelter for migrant children.
Local non-profit providers say they’ve had trouble recruiting and retaining child care workers since March 30, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opened the Fort Bliss “emergency intake site” for a large number of children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians. At about the same time, federally contracted staffing companies began advertising for child care jobs at the site, with pay ranging from about $17 to $19 an hour—roughly double the $9.18 median wage for El Paso’s child care workers.
“We’re a non-profit, we’re just coming out of COVID, and it’s just been extremely difficult to hire child care workers,” said Sylvia Acosta, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, the city’s largest provider of child care. “We pay competitive salaries for our market, but we just can’t compete.”
Acosta said the higher wages have also prompted several YWCA employees to quit to work at the Fort Bliss site, which houses thousands of children in tents. That adds an additional burden to the organization’s already existing staffing shortage, which dropped by about 100 employees during the pandemic—a shortfall that Acosta hopes to make up by the start of the school year.
The El Paso Center for Children, whose services include parenting classes, a youth emergency shelter, and mental health counseling for children and parents, lost 10% of its staff to the shelter, according to its CEO, Beth Senger. “They’re very aggressive,” she said of recruiters for the Fort Bliss site, who called the center asking to advertise the Fort Bliss jobs to Senger’s staff.
At least one company also appears to be recruiting El Paso child care workers for positions at emergency intake sites in other parts of the country. As of June 10, a job ad posted on the job search engine Indeed.com showed PAE, a global corporation, recruiting in El Paso for “travel childcare worker” positions at a facility for unaccompanied migrant children in Albion, Michigan.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the new emergency intake sites, part of a network of 200 facilities in 22 states that provides shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. The agency denied an interview request from El Paso Matters and did not respond to questions about its child care standards or the ratio of caregivers to migrant children at the Fort Bliss site.
The local competition for child care workers is also playing out nationally, as employers across many industries find themselves unable to attract new employees at pre-pandemic wages. The current shortage of child caregivers comes after many child care businesses were forced to close during the pandemic, as some parents opted to keep their children at home. A January report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that one in six child care jobs were lost since the pandemic began.
The impact of child care worker shortage
With fewer workers to meet the resurging demand for child care — the result of a restructuring economy combined with Fort Bliss recruiters’ higher wage offerings — waitlists for El Paso day cares and after school programs have expanded. The YWCA currently cares for 400 children in its day care and after-school programs, or 2,000 children shy of its pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, other El Paso child care providers — including city daycares and pre-schools — remain closed.
The challenge could have wide-ranging implications for El Paso parents eager to return to the workplace — particularly mothers.
During the pandemic, nearly 700,000 parents with young children quit their jobs due to a nationwide shortage of child care, according to new data analysis by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. Two-thirds of those parents were women.
Even before the pandemic, a 2018 study by the YWCA found that the lack of affordable, reliable child care in El Paso was among the top three barriers to women’s economic independence.
One woman’s challenges finding child care
When Rosey Natividad set out to start her own consulting company in 2015, she had multiple day care options for her firstborn son. “Had I not had child care, I don’t think I would have been able to grow the company,” she said.
With the pandemic, she and her husband decided not to enroll their youngest son in day care, largely to protect her elderly parents from infection. The choice was painful: Natividad’s husband left his teaching job to care for their two children, and as the pandemic wore on, she noticed her 1-year-old son was late learning to talk and walk.
The search for child care began in earnest this April, as soon as her family was fully vaccinated. It was far harder than she’d expected. Most day cares were full, waitlisted, or closed entirely.
With vaccination rates rising, “you’re like ‘oh things are going back to normal,’” she said. “But then you realize it’s not because there’s not enough child care.”
After a three-week search, Natividad’s husband finally found a day care opening for their son at St. Clement’s Church Preschool. “The first week we put him at St. Clement’s, he was a different kid,” Natividad recalled. “He was more social. He started screaming and laughing and running around. I thought, ‘he learned that from the other kiddos.’”
In early June, however, the day care announced it would close permanently due to several issues, including new church programming for 3- and 4-year-olds, and plans to use the day care space for other church activities. Natividad will have to wait until September for day care.
She can afford to pay for an at-home aide this summer to help meet her son’s development goals. But she worried about low-wage earners who cannot afford such measures, when the price of child care is already steep. In Texas, the median cost of child care runs between $15 and $35 a day, depending on the child’s age and the type of facility.
That challenge is driven by a relatively low number of workers: El Paso’s 2,000 child caregivers comprise just 1% of the city’s labor force, according to Leila Melendez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex.
“It’s a small number, but look at the impact,” she said. “It’s like that little leak in the pipe—that little leak is going to flood the entire house. (The child care shortage) is hampering our economy.”
Despite their staffing challenges, both Acosta and Senger said the competition will net positive results for vulnerable children at the Fort Bliss site, which as of June 15 held about 2,300 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17.
They both expressed relief that their well-qualified, former staff would be among those caring for the immigrant children, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty, and often hoping to reunite with family members who live in the United States.
“I think undocumented children and families deserve to have a great space to live and deserve to have great care and deserve to have the support they need to become legal and achieve their dreams,” Acosta said, “but from a business perspective it’s posing a challenge in the community.”
Possible positives from the pandemic
And Melendez was hopeful about the positive economic impact the staffing will have for El Paso.
The Fort Bliss shelter is providing higher wages that will likely funnel money into El Paso’s businesses, she noted. Those higher wages could also improve the economic status of child care workers themselves, about 90% of whom are women.
“These are skilled individuals who are doing very important work,” Melendez said. “If we want quality child care then we have to pay for it.”
Both the YWCA and the El Paso Community College have made changes in response to their staffing challenges.
The YWCA’s administrative office is moving to boost worker wages, and in May the community college provided emergency retention bonuses to prevent more staff from leaving. The bonuses have worked so far, Senger said, but at $40,000 a month, the funds will run out by the end of the summer. That coincides with the start of the school year and Acosta worries their staffing shortfall could become a full-blown crisis, especially for the 52 after-school program sites that working parents often rely on.
Melendez recommends still more changes for child care providers: pay slightly higher wages, extend hours of operation, increase part-time and flexible work schedules for employees, and hire more students like those in UTEP’s early childhood education program.
Financial help is also on the way, she said: On June 16, the Texas Workforce Commission announced it will extend child care subsidies to unemployed parents through September 2022. It will also begin distributing $790 million in federal relief funds to eligible child care businesses, which facilities can use to raise wages and recover costs incurred during the pandemic, among other options.
She hopes these efforts will help attract more workers and also drive down the cost of child care. “This is a silver lining in the pandemic,” she said. “Now we’re thinking of solutions a little differently.”
Cover photo: Yazmine Rodriguez of the YWCA Shirley Leavell Branch in East El Paso helps a student with a school project. (Photo courtesy of the YWCA Paso Del Norte Region)
Disclosure: Sylvia Acosta and Rosey Natividad are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.