OKLAHOMA CITY, Ok. — With permission from mom, Michelle Miller shows off her three former foster kids as if they were her own.
"I cared about them a lot, so I wanted the best and it was frustrating because I couldn't just go out and find a place," she said.
What Miller is referring to was the hunt to find child care since the children were all below kindergarten age. It was an agonizing, long process. Some facilities had no availability, some had waitlists with indeterminate ends, and if they did have availability, it wasn’t for all three kids. Pandemic protocols also hindered the search.
"Not only could we not see a lot of the classrooms, then we couldn't even meet the teacher. So, it was kind of an uncomfortable feeling, but you had to have childcare, you have to, so we just kept trying and trying," she said.
Miller eventually lucked out in her search, but according to the executive director of the Oklahoma childcare resource and referral association, her struggle is shared. The lack of options is what some say are holding back parents from re-entering the workforce.
"We've seen it across the entire state. We've seen it across the entire country," said executive director Paula Koos.
In a report released in September by the US Department of the Treasury, about half the country is in a “childcare desert”. That term is defined by at least three children for every one open daycare spot. In some areas, like the Oklahoma panhandle, there are five children for every one open spot and one open daycare center for the three counties that make up the area.
"For parents. It's been difficult because facilities have had to downsize. Staff have been out sick and so they're not serving as many children," Koos said.
Ramona Johnson is a director at Rainbow Fleet, a relatively new daycare facility in Oklahoma City.
"We're full until. Late summer, early fall of next year. I'm with child, I'm on our waitlist here and I work here," she said.
The lack of open spots for her center and ones like it around the country comes down to one thing: staffing.
"We've used Indeed and other work website, so it's definitely been a struggle and even sometimes that has been disappointing," she said. "Just paying for these websites and people don't show up for interviews or, you know, people show up and they don't stay long."
Staffing issues are not a pandemic-born problem, but COVID revealed just how critical it has become.
There are strict ratios of teachers to children and if a teacher leaves, the daycare has to lose spots, and because they’re mostly private businesses, they lose income.
Between 26% and 40% of the child care workforce, which is made up almost entirely of women and a third of which are women of color, leave every year. This is mostly because of poor pay and no benefits.
At an average salary is just $24,230, making child care workers are in the bottom two percentile of occupations.
However, families are spending on average 13% of their income on high childcare costs.
"The child care industry as a whole is often seen as just babysitting and it's so much more," said Stephanie Daniels, a child care consultant based in Tulsa.
She says the overhead costs of supplies are what eat up most of the money going into childcare. With how things are trending, she says some intervention must happen.
"There needs to be a public investment of some kind to really help sustain this workforce," said Daniels.
There’s help written into Biden’s current Build Back Better plan. It has an agenda to make childcare more affordable and available, but as it’s being trimmed down by trillions, it’s not certain whether the child care measures will remain in it.
As Washington determines whether or not to through the industry a lifesaver, Miller has hope for parents and guardians who were in her position.
"I'm sure that Oklahoma isn't the only place struggling, but I know that it's a need and it's going to get worked out, I feel that," she said.