CEDAR CREEK, Texas (KXAN) — Jenn Schmidt sits in front of her double monitors at home as she works remotely.

Nearby she’s got an infant activity play mat, rocker and a few toys on hand for twins she’s fostering.

“I’m trying to work and get my eight hours a day in with managing bottle feeding and nap time with the babies,” said Schmidt as one of the twins played and kept cooing nearby.

Since April, she’s been looking for some help and trying to get the almost 4-month-old twins into a child care program.

What Schmidt found was long waitlists.

“In that process, you go through, at least, the daycares that CPS approves and… we could not find any openings within Bastrop County,” Schmidt explained. “We extended it into Austin. I’m trying to go routes to my work office to try to find something along the way and had issues that way, as well.”

She said one child care center told her that it would be August of 2023 before they could get the twins off the waitlist.

Staffing shortages

Success By 6, a coalition of early childhood advocates and part of the United Way for Greater Austin surveyed child care providers in Travis County during the spring and found 89% had difficulty hiring in the previous six months.

“Having watched the pandemic unfold, and, as we are hoping to be entering the recovery phase, it doesn’t surprise me we have long neglected our childcare sector. It’s going to take more than just a boost of influx of money in the short term. It’s going to take rethinking how we fund child care on a fundamental level in our community, state and nation before we’re able to really create sustainable long-term access to high-quality care which all of our children deserve,” said Cathy McHorse, vice president of Success By 6 at United Way for Greater Austin. 

The survey was conducted in March and included 91 child care centers in Austin, Del Valle, Manor Pflugerville, Round Rock, Lakeway and Bee Cave.

The survey also found 43% of child care centers limited hours because of staffing shortages, more than half, 56%, reported they were under-enrolled because they didn’t have necessary workers and 94% had a waitlist.

“Much of the challenge with the lack of access to affordable child care is right now, like in many other industries, our child care sector is experiencing a staffing crisis of… hate to say it, but unprecedented proportions,” McHorse said. “It’s even more exacerbated with programs that accept childcare subsidies. And that’s the state subsidy that supports families with low income in accessing affordable childcare.”

Pandemic closures

She added that on average child care staff in Texas make $11 an hour, $22,000 a year.

McHorse explained that with today’s cost of housing, gas and food it’s only cutting deeper into household budgets.

“They can’t afford to live within the city of Austin. If they live outside the city of Austin, are they going to spend the money on gas to come from the outskirts to work for $11 an hour?” McHorse said.

Children at Risk, a research and advocacy nonprofit, analyzed data from Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) and reported that Texas lost 21% of child care providers from March 2020 to September 2021. Out of those closed, 41% of the providers served infant and toddlers, and 79% were child care homes.

The data also revealed that 1.6% of programs that received stabilization grants closed during the same time period, suggesting it had a positive effect on operation status.

Push for better wages

Child advocates, like McHorse, said they will be pushing lawmakers this upcoming legislative session to increase what the state contributes to child care programs. 

Jenn Schmidt was looking for child care since April to help with twins she’s fostering. (Courtesy: Jenn Schmidt)

She said that could mean better wages for child care staff. 

“We know some of our sister cities around the country and even down the road in San Antonio, they incorporate the one-eight cent sales tax to fund pre-K… which results in grants and supports to their child care sector,” McHorse said. 

In the meantime, she added that families looking for a program right now should check out the statewide portal for a list of child care availability in real-time.

Families can also check if they qualify for child care financial assistance in Travis County and for rural areas outside of Travis County. 

Schmidt, who started fostering during the pandemic, said she was surprised to learn that the waitlists could last months. 

She just found out that they were finally moved off one of the waitlists. The twins will start child care this coming week.

“I have a couple of co-workers… they were expecting later this year. And so I said, ‘you need to start now,'” Schmidt said. “It’s like having to know you’re going to need daycare before you even know you’re expecting.”