(Photo courtesy of AJC)

Marietta resident Rebecca Howard and her husband work, but finding child care was never something she had to worry about with her older kids. That’s changed now.

Until recently, Howard was on 13 waitlists for child care for her youngest daughter. She said programs with availability were way out of her budget, or too far away. The mom of three was finally able to get her daughter enrolled when her previous daycare suddenly had an open spot.

“I spent the better part of a week calling pretty much every single day care within 10 to 15 miles of us,” Howard said. “Every single one was like, ‘(You’re) waitlisted because we don’t have enough teachers.’”

Child care is at a turning point nationally, plagued by low levels of employee retention made worse by the pandemic. An estimated 111,000 child care jobs have been lost since February 2020 nationwide, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In January 2022, there were 395 fewer care providers licensed with the state Department of Early Care and Learning compared to January 2018.

“We have classrooms across the board that are empty across the state because we cannot hire enough staff,” said Ellen Reynolds, CEO of the Georgia Child Care Association.

Here are how these issues might continue affecting you and your family, and how you can take action.

Fewer teachers means less enrollment availability

Waitlists at child care centers have gotten longer these past few years due to a national labor shortage and low wages.

According to a study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, the average wage for a child care worker in 2019 in Georgia was $9 per hour. It was $14 for a preschool teacher.

Even with federal funding and incentive programs, retaining employees has fallen largely on child care providers, with some offering bonuses or higher wages to incentivize applications.

“I think providers are doing the best they can,” Reynolds said. “However, we have high turnover in our industry, we always have. So that signing bonus is only as good as long as that employee will stay.”

Gabrielle Priscilla is a mother of five kids and an at-home child care provider. Prior to that, Priscilla said she worked for child care facilities but left those roles citing a low salary.

“A lot of parents think because the tuition is much, much higher, that the teachers are being paid more,” Priscilla said. “When ultimately they’re paid $14 to $15 an hour, which still isn’t a sustainable wage.”

COVID relief money funded a series of $1,000 POWER (Providing Our Workforce Essential Recognition) Payments in 2021 to child care workers in DECAL-licensed facilities. Eligible workers — which don’t include those working fewer than 20 hours a week — will receive a subsequent $1,000 payment soon and are expecting another later this year with that application period ending on Feb. 18. According to a press release, the first round of POWER paid $33.4 million to early learning professionals and staff.

What can you do?

With availability ebbing and flowing, DECAL’s search tool (families.decal.ga.gov/ChildCare/Search) sorts through the state’s Quality Rated child care centers and Pre-Ks based on ZIP code, availability and services like transportation and weekend care. Families can also call the Quality Rated hotline at 1-877-255-4254.

Through platforms like SitterTree or Helpr, parents can search through hundreds of reviews and find short or long term child care. Some platforms with built-in background checks or COVID-safety processes might have higher price points.

Child care is more expensive

According to Care.com’s annual Cost of Care Survey, in 2021, 85% of parents reported spending 10% or more of their household income on child care. In the same survey, 46% of respondents reported that finding child care is more difficult now than before the pandemic.

Some providers also operate at a loss. According to a comprehensive study from the U.S. Treasury released in September 2021, for-profit child care centers operated on profit margins less than 1%. One of the best ways to stay above water? Maintaining full enrollment.

“We dropped by about 20,000 students attending Georgia pre-K programs in 2020,” said Reg Griffin, chief communications officer for DECAL. “Now we’re beginning to see that come back, and we’re up over 70,000 so that’s beginning to get back to normal. I know child care programs are telling us that while they’ve remained open, (in) many of them, the attendance is way down.”

That means some child care centers rely on raised tuition rates to continue operations.

What can you do?

Check your eligibility for different programs. Requirements for the Childcare and Parent Service program and Awarding Child Care Education Scholarship Supplements grants initiative can be found at caps.decal.ga.gov. Keep in mind that these programs have income requirements.

Families who are eligible for subsidized child care can apply at gateway.ga.gov/access.

Child care centers may also get funding from programs like the School-Age Help and Relief Effort or the emergency stabilization program, STABLE. Ask if participating centers offer tuition relief or discount credits.

Families at or below the poverty level can also apply for the Head Start program at eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/how-apply.

Home care providers lack some operational and overhead costs, which might translate into cheaper tuition. Not all providers are licensed, so DECAL’s Quality Rated search tool is a helpful resource.


Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.

Today’s story comes from our newest partner, the Covering Poverty project, which is part of the Journalism Writing Lab, an initiative of the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at the University of Georgia.

This story and others will become part of an online toolkit, coveringpoverty.uga.edu, which is devoted to helping journalists across the country cover meaningful stories about people and poverty-related matters.

Sophia Gratas writes for the Covering Poverty project, which is part of the Journalism Writing Lab, an initiative of the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at UGA.