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Regional cooperation can work
We’ve often lamented a lack of regional cooperation and the ongoing crisis of a lack of child care in the state to help spur economic growth. But a Johnson County program is as ray of hope.
In Johnson County, communities and businesses are investing resources in an effort raise the pay for child care workers in several local communities. The program was discussed at The Gazette’s Business Breakfast this week.
Using $1.5 million in federal dollars through pandemic relief to Iowa City and Johnson County along contributions from businesses through the Better Together 2030 initiative, regional leaders have sought to raise the pay of child care workers by $2 hourly. It’s an important effort to expand access to child care.
As The Gazette’s Izabela Zaluska reported in March, the average child care worker in Johnson County is paid just $11.16 per hour, or roughly $23,000 annually. A $2 hourly raise would amount to a 17 percent raise, adding nearly $4,000 annually to child care workers’ paychecks.
This is critical, because child cares are facing an uphill struggle in recruiting workers. The raises could help convince dozens of workers to fill openings. It would apply to centers who serve children 5-years-old and younger that pay the county’s recommended wage of $11.16 per hour. The centers must also meet other requirements to benefit from the funding.
Expanded access is a big deal in Johnson County, where the licensed child care capacity is 4,254 children but a lack of staffing has reduced available slots to 2,349. Centers, as a of earlier this year, had 102 full-time and 66 part-time openings.
Waitlists at 42 child care centers in the county totaled 1,874. Some are on lists for more than one center.
So cooperation between Johnson County communities is a model to be copied by counties throughout the region. Although once pandemic relief dollars are spent, the question turns to how Johnson County governments and businesses establish sustainable funding for the effort.
“If we need $500,000 to run this program annually for 135 employees, that's only 3,500 employees in Johnson County that we need to get employers to contribute $150 for annually. That's a very doable goal. I think we can even do beyond that and grow the program,” said Cady Gerlach who leads Project Better Together.
The business community will need to step up, but it’s clearly in its best interest to do so. The state’s chronic workforce shortage is due in no small part to a lack of accessible, affordable child care.
Johnson County is navigating politics and government turf wars to meet a pressing need. Other communities need to take note.
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