Infants enrolled at Wee Pals

The cost of child care is the highest for the youngest children and goes up if they are enrolled at a center-based provider such as Wee Pals in Owatonna. It costs parents $11,500 a year to send their infant to the center at West Hills, but statewide the average was $13,836 per infant in the years 2012 and 2013. (Kim Hyatt/People’s Press)

OWATONNA — Early child care has low pay for providers and a costly price tag for parents, especially in Minnesota where child care is the third least affordable in the nation.

“The cost is always kind of shocking but we had enough awareness,” said Tyson Anderson, father of three from Owatonna. “There’s responsibility in starting a family. Granted it’s a shock when you see the numbers, but you have to have enough awareness to know you can cover it before you go and start a family.”

Tyson and his wife, Stephanie, send their children to Creative Adventure Child Care in Owatonna, owned by Christy Hanson. He said they pay $18,000 a year for all three to attend, but the oldest is part-time and spends most of her time at the Minnesota Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. They also get a small discount for having multiple kids enrolled.

“We see the benefits of [Hanson’s] care so when it comes to the finances of it — I don’t want to say cost isn’t an issue — but she is worth what we’re spending,” Anderson said. “In Owatonna, we couldn’t get too much lower in terms of our expenses.”

The Andersons are “fortunate enough to be financially stable,” he said, and in comparison to what average Minnesotans are paying for child care, you could even go so far as to say they are lucky.

The average annual cost of child care in Minnesota is roughly $9,750 for one child. The amount paid is dependent on the age and whether the child care is family-based or center-based. Centers are more expensive. For instance, statewide toddler care for family-based during 2012 to 2013 was about $7,340 and center-based was $11,930, according to Kids Count Data Center.

The price for care is the highest when children are the youngest and the wait lists are the longest for infants. For one infant, it’s nearly 19 percent of the annual median income in Minnesota ($73,900). This is partly due because the staffing ratios are more stringent where you have to have a minimum one adult for every four infants.

At Wee Pals in Owatonna, a family looking to send their infant to the center in West Hills can expect to fork out $11,500 annually. This number lessens as the child ages, but not by much. A toddler has a price tag of $10,000 per year and preschoolers are $9,000.

“Tuition isn’t going to cover all the expenses associated with child care,” said Marilee Pfarr, executive director at Wee Pals.

Adding up expenses and low wages

Pfarr first came to Wee Pals as a teacher back in 1985 with an hourly wage of $5. She stayed until 1990 before going to work for Federated Insurance. She said she came back to Wee Pals in 2012 to be the executive director when she could “afford to take this job.”

“I really enjoy child care and I really enjoy kids. Now I can do this without feeling like I’m strapped to make money,” Pfarr said.

Since she first started out, the wage has doubled: the median hourly wage was $10.60 in 2012 for center-based early childhood teachers working with children from birth to those 5 years old, according to the National Survey of Early Care and Education.

With 58 kids in enrollment at Wee Pals, a lot of funds are needed to educate the kids, pay the bills and all 21 staff members.

“You’re trying to make it affordable for parents but you still have to pay all of your expenses. And you want to be able to hire staff at a reasonable rate, and we’re not there where we should be for rate-paying staff. It’s very difficult.”

Often times in child care, she said the benefits are “limited,” like health insurance and paid vacation. But that’s why she said Wee Pals is “blessed to have people that are working who just really love what they do. They just figure out how to make it work.”

She said her teachers are in line of the average hourly wage, but other staff members fall below $10.60 per hour.

It’s the “hidden costs” of child care, Pfarr said, that make it so expensive for providers and centers. The turnover rate for furniture and rugs is high and so are the price tags. It’s about $2,000 to a get a wooden locker she said, and replacing mulch on the playground is costly, so much that they apply for grants to help out with the cost.

She said they purchase about 15 to 20 sleds each winter and go through books and puzzles like crazy, so replacing those items adds up, too.

Other expenses include training for employees which runs at about $200 each and that’s done annually. Then you have cleaning products, a minimum monthly expense of $400, and $2,000 a month on food and $2,425 a month in rent.

“It is a business. Your heart can get in the way, but bills have to be paid,” Pfarr said.

In this past weekend’s Owatonna People’s Press, child care provider Christy Hanson opened her doors to show how she is working to improve the quality of care at Creative Adventures Child Care in Owatonna. With all the improvements and efforts — from training, educating and nourishing — the cost to keep her doors open is significant, she said.

“Some years after the deductions [my salary’s] been zero. Others I’ve been down to $10,000 or under,” Hanson said. “You get to the end of the year and you’re just like ‘Ouch.’”

Hanson said the take-home pay is low, especially when adding up the expenses. She rarely serves fruits and vegetables from a can and only gives the kids organic meats. She won’t purchase “boxed” lesson plans, and pays for hands-on educational materials, so the high quality products she gets for the kids in her care adds up.

“It costs a lot of money. I don’t want to say I don’t make anything, obviously I do and I love my job. But I think when parents, it’s so unaffordable for them and I understand that. But it’s also unaffordable for us,” Hanson said.

Some parents with lower income can utilize work support programs to help make child care cost more affordable. The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) offers sliding fees for those eligible parents who are working or going to school, but it is not fully funded so nearly 7,000 families are on a wait list across the state to enroll in the program, according to Kids Count.

Advocacy groups such as Children’s Defense Fund in Minnesota are pushing for more support programs for parents in 2015 and to fully fund CCAP and increase reimbursement rates for providers. They are also planning on advocating alongside other organizations to increase the minimum wage to $9.50.

Reach reporter Kim Hyatt at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPKimHyatt

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