When Rebecca Mercatoris accepted her job in May, the economic hangover from pandemic lockdowns was fading and the employee shortage was emerging.

Now the head of Allegheny County’s new Department of Children Initiatives is trying to staff up her office, which is charged with bulking up the child care sector, at a time when a day care crisis is contributing to a workforce shortage.

“We’ve seen just acute shortages in the early childhood community,” Mercatoris told PublicSource this week. “Lots of different types of programs will tell you that they are really challenged in hiring qualified workforce right now.”

When the child care sector can’t do its job, many parents find it difficult or impossible to do theirs.

To address that problem, Mercatoris has more than $10 million in funding, mostly courtesy of the county’s allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA]. Advocates for children have ideas as to how the county can use that money. Mercatoris thinks it’s too early to reveal her plans, but she says they’re coming.

“Please know that as we are having these discussions,” she said, “there is a very real focus on immediate support for families and for programs, and being able to address some of these really sharp issues in the field right now, including large waitlists and thinking about what services are currently available for families.”

From ballot failure to ballooning budget

The county’s newest department emerged from the narrow failure of a 2018 ballot initiative that would have boosted property taxes to fund enhanced programming for children. While County Executive Rich Fitzgerald opposed the tax hike, he backed the creation of a new department.

That department is charged with improving early childhood education and programs for kids while they are not in school. Its 2021 operating budget was $443,000, and Mercatoris’ hire in May was its only personnel move until this week.

Rebecca Mercatoris, center, the first director of the Allegheny County Department of Children Initiatives, talks at a press conference, with (left to right) County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, County Manager William McKain, Heinz Endowments Vice President for Learning Michelle Figlar, county Chief of Staff Jennifer Liptak and Mercatoris' husband, Jake. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
Rebecca Mercatoris, center, the first director of the Allegheny County Department of Children Initiatives, talks at a press conference, with (left to right) County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, County Manager William McKain, Heinz Endowments Vice President for Learning Michelle Figlar, county Chief of Staff Jennifer Liptak and Mercatoris’ husband, Jake. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Now Mercatoris’ department has a freshly minted manager for out-of-school-time programs, has offered a job to a potential deputy director and seeks three more staff members. She calls it “the small and mighty department.”

Its 2022 operating budget of $971,000 is double what it got this year, and it is also empowered to spend up to $10 million in ARPA money.

While that’s a big increase, longstanding problems in the child care sector have only gotten worse.

Wiping noses for $10 an hour

Nearly 6,000 children are on waiting lists for care in a five-county area including Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette and Westmoreland, according to an October Community Pulse Report by the Poise Foundation, the United Way and Allies for Children. That likely reflects thousands of parents whose careers are taking back seats to their children’s needs.

Nearly all of those children could be served if existing child care providers were fully staffed, according to the report. But in an industry in which, nationally, average annual pay barely tops $24,000, COVID-19 has caused staffing anxieties for more than half of providers.

Prior to the pandemic, the child care industry had “a razor-thin workforce already,” due to low wages and spotty benefits, said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together, a Squirrel Hill-based nonprofit that supports the sector. “Then COVID hits, and we’re saying, ‘We need you to continue to come to work, making $10 an hour, with no health benefits, in a pandemic,’” she said, summarizing society’s message to child care workers. “‘And we need you to wipe noses and deal with bodily fluids.’”

Some see the risk of a vicious spiral that could leave parents with even fewer options.

“As we see, so many businesses are hiring workers and increasing their wages and trying to attract those workers, and if the child care and out-of-school-time settings are not able to do that same thing, they’re going to lose workers to those higher-paying jobs,” said Jamie Baxter, executive director of the nonprofit Allies for Children.

She said her own three-person organization includes one employee who is juggling child care and work while her 1-year-old is queued up on five day care provider waiting lists.

Four big ideas for a complex system

Even with $10 million, there’s no easy way for Mercatoris to goose wages at the fragmented mix of providers who care for young children and for older kids when school is out.

“What we have is a pretty complex system with lots of different funding streams and programs that are doing the very best they can with the resources they are given,” said Mercatoris.

Basically, households earning more than double the federal poverty figure typically pay for their own child care, while those at or below that line can access government subsidies administered by counties but funded and regulated by the state.

Ciminillo says the county could play several valuable roles in addressing the sector’s needs, including:

  • Investing in systems that provide training and credentialing to incoming child care workers
  • Paying training expenses for those new workers
  • Bringing together organizations from the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce to Partner4Work in a search for solutions
  • Using the county’s “bully pulpit” to communicate the importance of child care as a profession.

Presented with that list, Mercatoris said those are “things we are talking about and thinking about,” but added that it’s too early to set timetables for the rollout of emerging initiatives.

Life after ARPA

The department’s $10 million ARPA allocation for 2022 reflects “the county really showing that they are dedicated and focused on uplifting children,” said Baxter. But federal rules allow ARPA spending only through 2024. “We are concerned about what [the department’s] funding will look like in the future,” she added.

Mercatoris declined to look too far ahead because county budgets depend on factors including outside funding sources, the county executive’s priorities and county council’s input. “I think we’re excited to make meaningful progress with the funds that have been allocated,” she said.

Ciminillo said she hopes the ARPA funding will give the county time to muster long-term support for those who care for children, and that the pandemic’s shocks will prompt a shift in the public’s understanding of the sector’s importance.

“We can’t continue expecting women — and a larger portion of women of color — to subsidize the needs of all” by caring for kids while accepting substandard wages, she said. “I’m hopeful that we’re seeing sort of a shift in values so that early childhood educators will be valued.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...