Is day care too expensive? It depends who you ask.

Many parents who have children in day care say the costs are too high. Many providers say it's not a livable wage with long hours and few benefits.

"Infant care was difficult to find, toddler not as much," said Leslie Salmi, a single mother of two children, Londynn, 11, and Roman, 5. "Finding affordable child care is next to impossible. At one point, I was paying more for day care than I was for rent."

Salmi works in the medical field and has struggled for years to find someone to watch her children when she worked overnight shifts.

Originally from Esko, Salmi now lives in Duluth. She solved the problem by having a babysitter in her home while she worked. She said it cost more than enrolling in a day care center because she also had to feed the babysitter.

According to a 2018 study by the Wilder Research and the Center for Rural Policy and Development, Minnesota is suffering from a child care shortage, especially in the northeastern part of the state.

The study found that family child care programs have decreased by more than 20 percent since 2011. Possible issues are listed in the study: low wages earned by providers; the natural aging out and retiring of in-home providers after their own children have graduated; and the long hours as the providers accommodate parents' work schedules.

The study notes that younger parents are not starting at-home day cares in the same numbers as their predecessors.

Allison Jerde closed her in-home day care in Cloquet last summer after five years. She took five to six children at a time from infant age and up, plus her own two kids.

"There was the constantly changing rules and regulations to keep up with, the classes and training we needed to take," Jerde said. "There was the paperwork and the perception that in-home day care providers are just stay-at-home moms who play with other people's kids."

Jerde said she worked 10-hour days, with little time off. She originally believed an in-home day care would be the perfect way to make money and stay home with her young children. She quickly discovered that with the long hours, she had very little time with her own kids.

"There was no outside support when I started," Jerde said. "I felt alone."

Once Jerde closed her day care, she began working "regular" hours outside her home.

Since then, a group of providers began meeting monthly to take the required training together and for support.

The cost of child care

Another issue is startup costs. Mini Mos Child Care in Esko opened in August 2016 with over $500,000 in expenses.

"We were balancing purchasing a location, getting employees hired, an organization chart, business plan and getting the licensing regulations met," owner Courtney Greiner said. "The rules and regulations are difficult to navigate and it is extra hard when you are not in a location with all of the information needed to proceed. We had a small deadline between when we closed on the building and when we opened the business so we could start making money to pay employees and building expenses."

There are 493 child care establishments in Northeast Minnesota, which serves a total of 649 infants, 1,087 toddlers and 5,104 preschoolers, according to a 2018 report from Child Care Aware, a child care provider information hub.

The need for more child care is expected to increase about 50 percent with an additional 4,496 licensed child care slots. Almost half of the 91 child care centers and 23 preschools are in Duluth and Grand Rapids.

Infant care is more difficult to find. According to a 2018 study by the Wilder Research and the Center for Rural Policy and Development, state regulations are very strict for child-to-staff ratio. Infants and newborns, defined as newborn to 12 months for in-home providers and newborn to 16 months for centers, are the most expensive to care for because they require the highest child-to-staff ratio. Staffing is providers largest expense, which is why costs are higher for infants in day cares.

Carlton County was projected to need a 60 percent increase in providers to meet needs in 2018. There are currently 10 day care centers, 48 in-home providers and four preschools in the county.

State mandates cause child care changes

Melinda Ferrell has been providing in-home day care for 24 years. She lives in rural Cloquet, in St. Louis County. She recently stopped taking infants and only accepts one child under 2 years old. She said her stress levels have dropped now that she no longer has to follow the state's strict rules for infant care.

Ferrell said rules have changed significantly since she became an in-home provider in Carlton County in 1995. She moved to St. Louis County in 2001.

Longtime in-home day care provider Judy Sanda agrees the rules have made the business more challenging. Sanda has been providing day care in her Cloquet home 40 years. She wanted to stay home with her five children. She remembers when there were over 100 providers in Carlton County.

Sanda is licensed for up to 14 children as long as she has an assistant, but she usually averages 10 in a day. She accepts infants who are at least 6 weeks old.

"Nobody has baby openings in Carlton County," Sanda said. "Everyone is full." She said her last opening was three years ago, although she has a few children who will be transitioning to kindergarten in the fall.

Sanda said the constantly changing rules over the years have created issues for child care providers, and in her opinion, are the reason why fewer people are willing to become providers.

"The paperwork is more difficult and takes more time," Sanda said. "I am currently working on my relicensing paperwork and it's a challenge."

State regulations allow for Mini Mos to accept 98 children, including 14 infants, 12 in the transition room, 17, toddlers, 30 preschool aged and 25 in the Kindergarten Readiness room.

Ferrell said she can afford to be an in-home provider because she is married and her husband is employed outside of the home.

"If it is your only source of income, it could be tough," Ferrell said.

She transitioned her in-home day care business to a nature preschool, The Back 40 Schoolhouse.

Sanda said she charges enough to make a livable wage with her child care business. She said none of her parents complain about the costs to her.

Greiner said it has cost Mini Mos more to hire good teachers and retain them.

"Payroll, payroll taxes, unemployment, etc. is our biggest cost at Mini Mos," she said. "I have not brought home a paycheck since we started and don't anticipate bringing one anytime soon."

She said they consider the day care center an investment. Her husband works outside the home while she is the director at Mini Mos.

Greiner said another struggle is competing employers who can afford to offer the same pay or more with benefits that Mini Mos can't afford.

Some possible solutions listed in the Wilder Research study include funding assistance, an increase in microloans or grants to help providers improve or expand their child care business.

Greiner agrees.

"We need support from outside agencies at this point," Greiner said.

She said she believes communities don't recognize the value of day care providers and the economic value they bring to the area.

"As caregivers, we grow to love the kids we care for and we want what is best for them," Greiner said. "We want them to succeed and we want to be successful business owners as well."



Child care by numbers

493 Child care programs in Northeast Minnesota

132 Family child care programs in Duluth alone

649 Infants enrolled in child care programs

1,087 Toddlers enrolled in child care programs

5,104 Preschoolers enrolled in child care programs

13% Annual reduction in productivity due to child care shortage as estimated by employers

Source: Wilder Research and the Center for Rural Policy and Development, 2018