Child care worker shortage squeezes La Crosse businesses, families

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Red Balloon Early Learning Center in La Crosse County is unable to operate at full capacity because of a staffing shortage.

Red Balloon isn’t alone — child care employment is down nationwide, and the industry is struggling to get workers back.

“We don’t get anybody to apply. If they do apply, they don’t show up. And if they do show up, they don’t take the job because we can’t offer as much as we would like to offer them,” said Red Balloon director Susan Lucey.

With many other businesses hiring for higher wages, the child care industry has a hard time competing.

“People who love to care for children, they love that work, they are leaving that work… that profession because they don’t have enough money for their own family’s income,” said Jodi Widuch, executive director at The Parenting Place in La Crosse.

The county and the nation have experienced a decrease in child care providers. In 1998, the county had 458 regulated child care businesses.

“Today, I think we have 92 childcare businesses that are regulated in La Crosse County,” Widuch said. “A huge decrease that is not even coming close to meeting the demand.”

The Parenting Place offers support for child care providers and parents looking for care in the area. Widuch has seen the difficulties both parents and providers are facing.

“Parents are not able to find the child care they need so that they can go to work,” Widuch said.

In a report last week, the U.S. Department of the Treasury called the current child care system “unworkable.” The report cited high child care costs and low wages for child care workers. Fewer employees make it necessary for places like Red Balloon to close classrooms.

“We are not able to fill to capacity, which means we aren’t able to offer families care that need care in the area,” Lucey said.

Red Balloon is offering benefits and bonuses to help attract new workers, Lucey said, because it needs seven to eight more full-time workers to be able to operate at full capacity.

As families sit on the wait list, both Lucey and Widuch reflect on the importance of this care that so many have to forgo.

“This is a hard job, and they do a wonderful job looking out for those kids,” Lucey said.

There are no immediate solutions offered at this time, but the Treasury report said President Joe Biden hopes to increase funding by offering universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds and providing low- and middle-income children with access to high quality child care.

“When children are in consistent, stable childcare, that benefits them and their development and their ability to form strong relationships,” Widuch said.

Recent news headlines at News 8 New/News 8000

La Crosse artist raising money to support Hatched Baby statue repairs

Planning continues for La Crosse Street reconstruction

Texas doctor who defied the state’s abortion ban is sued in first test of new law

7th Street boat launch temporarily closed in La Crosse