Child care

With low wages failing to make ends meet for many Minnesota family care providers, thousands have left the market in recent years. (Metro Creative Images)

WINONA, Minn. — Parents had to abandon their jobs.

Some left their children with unlicensed care providers risking their safety so they wouldn’t get fired due to absences.

And others skimped on sleep, work or time with their kids to bring in enough money to get their sons and daughters quality child care in Greater Minnesota amid a shrinking provider market.

Those were some of the stories child care providers, regional development officials, business leaders and parents shared with state lawmakers on Thursday as a pair of legislative committees weighed steps to combat the child care crisis in Minnesota. The hearing was one of several to take place in southeastern Minnesota on Thursday as part of the House of Representatives’ mini session.

While they didn’t come away with immediate solutions, lawmakers said they should review state subsidies to low-income families that help them afford child care, prune regulations that could be stunting local innovations and work with private businesses to stave off the provider shortage.

With low wages failing to make ends meet for many Minnesota family care providers, thousands have left the market in recent years. As a result, Minnesota parents have struggled to find child care and some of those that have been able to access care have struggled to pay for it, economic development officials told the committees.

First Children’s Finance assessed the shortage of quality affordable child care slots at as low as 3,050 in the northeast region of the state and as high as 14,637 in central Minnesota.

“Why does finding early education for our children need to feel like we won the lottery?” Kattie Tibbs, 32, asked the panel.

The mother of four said she waited months trying to find care for her first daughter when she was an infant, finding friends, family or others to fill the gap, but then she got a call.

The Winona State Children’s Center said they would be able to take in her daughter, who was an infant at the time.

“It felt like I had won the lottery,” Tibbs told the committees. But finding care shouldn’t be a rare feat, she said, it should be the status quo.

Lawmakers on the panel agreed that it shouldn’t be a rare instance that a parent find child care that they can afford, and committed to working toward a solution. But they acknowledged that they alone would not be able to fix a business that has high costs to operate and that requires quality of providers despite their “unlivable wages.”

“I think if everybody is looking for us to have 100% of the answer, we are probably going to fall woefully short,” Rep. Ray Dehn, D-Minneapolis, said. “It seems like this crisis is getting to a point where there are going to have to be massive changes within this system.”

Representatives from regional development groups and businesses said they’d been surveying their communities and aiming to find answers. But even two years into an effort to provide more child care slots for Hormel Foods employees in Austin, officials said they’d only added about 12.

“We’re happy and proud of what we’ve done so far but we’re really without major gains,” Angie Bissen, of Hormel Foods, said. Bissen said the company was still working to secure funding to develop a child care center for its employees.

Throughout the hearing, parents, teachers, lawmakers and community members emphasized the importance of early childhood education on long-term success. And they said lawmakers should consider funding early childhood education and development at the rate it funds K-12 educational offerings.

“This changes the entire lifetime trajectory for these young children,” Tim Penny, CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, said.

The House of Representatives’ mini session is set to continue Friday in Winona and surrounding regions. Lawmakers won’t take action during the hearings.

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