Low wages, lack of benefits makes it hard to attract, retain child care workers in Wisconsin

MADISON — Low wages and a lack of benefits are making it difficult for child care centers in Wisconsin to attract and retain workers, particularly in rural areas, according to state child care experts.

Jodi Widuch is the executive director of The Parenting Place, a La Crosse-based agency that provides free services and referrals to child care providers and families. She told Wisconsin Public Radio that child care centers are competing for employees with school districts, which have better compensation packages.

"We need highly qualified folks to be caring for young children. They're very vulnerable," Widuch said. "What happens to them early in their years, both good and bad, stays with them for a lifetime."

The economy, regulatory changes and shifts in family dynamics are contributing to the child care worker shortage, said Gina Paige, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, which licenses and regulates child care in the state.

The department is working to address the employment challenges, Paige said. The department's REWARD Wisconsin Stipend Program awarded an average of $540 last fiscal year to 2,375 child care and early-education workers for staying in their fields.

Wisconsin school districts have also started programs to help high school students earn certificates to work in licensed child care centers.

While the number of licensed child care centers in Wisconsin is down from about 5,000 in 1998 to about 4,000 this year, the centers' overall capacity has increased from 134,000 slots to more than 200,000, according to the department. The quality of care has also increased, Paige said.

"In February 2013, only 56.1 percent of children were enrolled in programs rated three stars or higher compared with 74.4 percent in July 2018," she said. "During the same period, enrollment in high-quality four and five star programs increased from 14.3 percent to 27.2 percent."