OGDENSBURG — When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in New York five months ago, child care providers became “the essential workers behind the essential workers,” U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand told about 40 people at a news conference Friday, outside the Dobisky Visitors’ Center overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
Every time an EMT, a nurse, a pharmacy or grocery store worker is on the clock, she said, a child care provider is watching that worker’s children.
“If we want to recover, we have to know that we have to meet the needs of child care providers,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “They stepped up when we needed them, it’s our turn to step up when they need us.”
Calling for a $50 billion federal fund for child care as part of passing the Child Care is Essential Act, the senator has advocated for child care stabilization through what she has described as “adequate” and “robust” federal funding, particularly to cover additional reopening costs and personal protective equipment purchases.
The Child Care is Essential Act, introduced in the Senate in June, would allot $50 billion in payments to states for the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant program, with the additional funding available until Sept. 30, 2021. Eligible child care organizations can apply more than once for funding that may cover a variety of operational costs, including payroll, employee benefits, facility rent, utilities, insurance, sanitation materials and procedures, PPE, health and safety training, adjustments to staff-to-child ratios and mental health supports for children and families.
To qualify for a grant under the legislation, licensed or registered child care providers would need to have been providing services before March 1, 2020, and must commit to prioritizing open slots for children of essential workers, of workers whose employment requires attendance, and homeless children, those with disabilities or those who are experiencing child abuse or neglect.
Sen. Gillibrand was joined Friday by state Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, St. Lawrence County Legislature Chair Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, county legislators Margaret G. Haggard, D-Potsdam and James E. Reagan, R-Ogdensburg, Heuvelton Mayor Barbara A. Lashua, Ogdensburg Mayor Jeffery M. Skelly and Deputy Mayor John A. Rishe.
Bruce M. Stewart, executive director of the St. Lawrence Child Care Council, Kathryn L. Mullaney, Canton Day Care Center treasurer, Lori J. Moulton, executive director of SUNY Potsdam Child Care Center, and United Helpers CEO Stephen E. Knight each expressed support for the senator’s proposed legislation on behalf of their respective organizations.
“If families do not have quality affordable child care options, the north country will never reach its full workforce or economic development potential,” Mr. Stewart said. “Although many have known this for years, the current COVID-19 crisis clearly shows that child care is essential infrastructure just like information technology, health care services and transportation during this critical time.”
Long before the global health crisis gripped communities, Sen. Gillibrand said, a lack of accessible and affordable child care was a problem, with child care deserts limiting accessibility and affordability across the country, including in the north country. Though Ogdensburg residents provide services from their homes, the city does not have a designated child care center.
Addressing the group, Mr. Walczyk recalled having a conversation this week with SUNY Canton President Zvi Szafran, who told him “when the flood waters rise, that’s when you find out where the cracks in the floor are.”
“This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue,” Mr. Walczyk said of child care deserts and accessibility, adding that the “cracks in the floor” have been more apparent than ever through the pandemic. “You hear it from every single sector, from the private sector to the public sector to the health care sector, from everyone in your business community, this is so critically important.”
A Bipartisan Policy Center national survey of 800 parents indicates 43 percent of those working remotely in March and April needed child care, with 49 percent of parents working in-person saying they needed child care. Based on survey responses, 57 percent of parents believe state and federal governments have the highest level of responsibility to provide funding to stabilize child care services.
Though $3.5 billion in Child Care and Development Block Grant funding was previously earmarked in the CARES Act, experts estimate some $9.6 billion is needed each month to keep current child care providers afloat and support closed providers in the reopening process.
Sen. Gillibrand has supported several child care bills in Washington and co-sponsors the long-term, systems-based Child Care for Working Families Act, which would establish day care tax credits for low-income families, universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds and increased funding to Head Start programs.
“Child care is one of those areas that is seldom thought of as a key part of economic development in healthy communities,” Mr. Reagan said. “I hear all the time, especially from essential workers who are being told they have to be back to work, ‘what about my children? What am I going to do with my children?’”