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Child care providers criticize proposed licensing rules

  • Three-year-olds at the Tot Spot Center look at picture books on West Street in Concord on Thursday. “Whether it’s in Concord or Manchester or the Seacoast, we hear over and over again that there’s a real staffing crisis facing child care,” said Sally Wuellenweber, director and owner of the Concord facility. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Three-year-olds at the Tot Spot Child Care Center in Concord double up to go for a walk Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Sally Wuellenweber (left) owner and director of Tot Spot and JoAnn O’Shaughnessy, who owns a day care in Manchester, sit for a photo at Tot Spot in Concord.



Monitor staff
Thursday, June 08, 2017

Child care providers are pushing back against proposed licensing rules, arguing the new regulations could make it even harder for them to find qualified staff and force price hikes when families are already struggling to pay.

The child care licensing unit at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is proposing doubling certain fines and extra professional development hours for full-time staff. Regulators also want child care workers who are seeking work at a center to present a $50 eligibility card as proof that they’ve had all the necessary background checks, as well as standardized child registration forms across centers.

Some day care owners say the proposals add to an already heavy regulatory load, and will directly impact their ability to recruit and retain staff in an already low-paying industry.

“Whether it’s in Concord or Manchester or the Seacoast, we hear over and over again that there’s a real staffing crisis facing child care,” said Sally Wuellenweber, director and owner of the Tot Spot, a toddler child care center in Concord.

Wuellenweber said she’s all for standards and regulation. She takes great pride in her center, where children 1 to 3 years old learn and play using a Montessori-inspired curriculum. The walls are light blue, everything is clean, well-ordered, and bright. In the past four years, the most serious violation uncovered during a state inspection was leaving alcohol swabs in a low, unlocked drawer, which was quickly remedied.

But centers like hers – especially smaller ones – operate on a razor’s edge, where, after taxes, insurance, and payroll, not much is left over, she said. That’s despite child care workers making sometimes as little as minimum wage.

Meanwhile, families can barely afford to pay for child care as it is.

The Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, ranked the Granite State the 12th most expensive state in the nation for child care in 2016. The average annual costs for infant care were $11,810 in New Hampshire, according to EPI, and the typical family will spend 14 percent of their income on care. For low-wage workers, child care is basically out of reach, with average costs for an infant’s care eating up a whopping 78 percent of a minimum wage worker’s average salary.

“We’re really caught in this conundrum of whether or not we offer affordable care or we allocate our resources to these over-regulated standards. Not all of them aid in keeping children safe. Some of it, literally, is just paperwork, paperwork, and documentation,” Wuellenweber said.

In one instance, the state is proposing upping the number of required hours for professional development from 18 to 24. Manchester Child Development Center owner JoAnn O’Shaughnessy said the current rule is already difficult to comply with. She closes her center down one day a year for staff training, paying for both her staff’s time and trainers. It costs around $3,000.

“That’s just for six to seven hours of staff development. And they have to do the (rest) on their own, because I can’t afford to tell parents – no I can’t serve you another day,” she said.

But Melissa Clement, the chief of the child care licensing unit at DHHS, said the state is trying to accommodate providers as it crafts its rules to find a good balance. After a contentious first public hearing in April on the proposed rules, the department made changes and scheduled a second hearing on Tuesday.

“We want to say ‘okay, we heard you last time,’ we tried to take into consideration what your concerns were and this is what we’ve come up with. What do you think?” she said.

And while full-time staff will, under the proposed rules, need to get more professional development, Clement points out that others will be allowed to get fewer hours. The new regulations also allow for more types of training to count, including online coursework.

Many of the proposals also flow from new federal requirements tied to the block grant that helps fund the licensing department and child care subsidies for low-income families, Clement said, including requiring set policies surrounding expelling students.  

As for the fines, she said, those haven’t gone up since the department first issued them, and in some cases just weren’t high enough to really incentivize compliance. The department also “hardly ever” fines a center when they break a certain rule for the first time, she said, unless it’s a severe violation.

But Clement said she understands centers are in a tough spot.

“It’s definitely an untenable situation at the moment. With our unemployment rate as low as it is, it’s getting even more difficult to find people who are willing to work in child care because of the pay,” she said.

DHHS is taking public comment on the proposed rules until June 13. They hope to have a final draft in front of the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for their July 21 meeting.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)