By Maddie Robinson
In order to get affordable child care for her son, Paulina Erbele has to drive from her work in Gackle, North Dakota to his child care facility an hour away in Wishek and then back home, a total of 80 miles every day.
Erbele, a history teacher who lives 25 miles outside of Gackle, is no stranger to the struggle of finding child care in rural areas.
With all of the facilities close to her being at capacity, Erbele had to look further out of town to find care. After the Wishek-based child care center closed down in February 2022, Erbele had to leave her son with a woman she barely knew. After that arrangement stopped this past March, Erbele’s sister-in-law took care of him until the end of the school year. Then, while on maternity leave until October, Erbele thought she had a child care plan for when she had to go back to teaching, but that fell through, forcing her to take more leave from work.
Now, a new facility opened in Wishek over the summer and Erbele is back to her long journeys for her son’s child care.
“You get so desperate in these situations where you don't even think about it anymore. You just do it,” Erbele said.
The constant fight to find quality, affordable child care in North Dakota is a common phenomenon and is particularly prevalent in rural communities.
On average across the state, the supply of workers and facilities only meets 30% of the demand for licensed child care, according to Verla Jung, the start-up and community engagement coordinator for Child Care Aware of North Dakota. Some sparsely-populated counties, like Slope County and Sioux County, have zero state-licensed child care providers.
The providers that do exist face many obstacles, from struggling to retain workers to being forced to cut families they serve to having to operate at a deficit.
Erin Laverdure, a project coordination representative at Basin Electric Power Cooperative (BEPC), serves as board president of the Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care (ECCCC) in Hazen, North Dakota. The ECCCC opened its doors in 2017 after the BEPC and other large employers in the area wanted to establish a child care co-op that could help meet the needs of members in the community.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the co-op was doing well according to Laverdure. The child care facility, which can hold up to 77 children, was operating near or at capacity and was breaking even. However, during COVID-19, ECCCC was hit with distance restrictions that limited the number of children and caretakers the facility could hold at a time, which hurt their income and caused the co-op to close multiple times.
Any stabilization grants and other state funding the co-op received dried up over a year ago. Now, ECCCC is still recovering.
“We're gonna have to operate at a deficit to keep our doors open,” Laverdure said. “It's not a position we want to be in.”
Retaining workers in facilities is also a challenge, which Laverdure credits to “dismal” child care wages for workers across the state. Over a year ago, the ECCCC lost a few employees, which resulted in the co-op having to cut three families due to no longer meeting state-regulated staff-to-child ratio requirements.
While the co-op offers what they can for employee benefits and has increased their worker’s wages, they’ve also had to raise rates for the families they serve. While these increases in fees are necessary for the co-op to function, Laverdure said it’s hard to strike a right balance so parents aren’t priced out of their services.
“It's very difficult, if not impossible, to balance that fair tuition to our families and fair employee pay and benefits,” Laverdure said.
When families do finally find child care, the cost can be crushing and it continues to climb. According to a report from Child Care Aware, the cost of child care outpaced inflation in 2019 and 2020. Also, per North Dakota KIDS COUNT, the annual cost of child care in North Dakota is, on average, $7,800 to $9,800, the price of in-state tuition at a public four-year university.
The financial aspect of the child care industry for workers is also a growing problem, especially in rural communities. According to North Dakota KIDS COUNT, the median wage for a child care worker in North Dakota was just $12.86 in 2022. Jessica Haak, the membership director at North Dakota Farmers Union, said this pay is unsustainable and leads to high turnover rates within the child care industry.
“At the root of the issue is the pay that child care workers receive,” Haak said.
Haak, who represented the 12th District in the North Dakota House of Representatives from 2013 to 2016, said the key to fixing the rural child care crisis in the state is to address the wage and workforce retention issues in the field.
One recent piece of legislation meant to tackle the child care crisis is House Bill 1540, which was signed by Gov. Doug Burgum in April of this year, according to the governor’s website. The bill is a one-time investment of $66 million for child care services in the state over two years. The investment includes $22 million for expanding child care assistance for families who need help paying for care, $15 million for incentivizing more providers to care for toddlers and infants and $5 million for 500 families to participate in employer-led child care programs.
While the one-time investment is a start, Haak said House Bill 1540 does not properly address the wage issue for child care workers.
Amy Jacobson, executive director of Prairie Action ND, agrees with Haak’s sentiment: the $66 million child care package is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough to make lasting change in the industry, especially for rural workers and families.
“It is good to see an investment in child care, but all of the advocates, all of the providers, all the workers, were calling for that number to be tripled,” Jacobson said.
Prairie Action ND is a communications and digital advocacy organization that amplifies progressive values in the state. Ahead of the most recent legislative session, the organization joined the North Dakota Child Care Action Alliance (NDCCAA), a grassroots coalition meant to come up with a solution to the child care crisis that would be presented to the Legislature.
The NDCCAA’s policy recommendation was to develop a Child Care Workforce Fund, which would have raised worker pay with state-supplemented wages and provided support to teachers, teacher’s assistants and family child care home professionals who were seeking professional development opportunities. Jacobson said the bill came forward at last month’s special session, but did not move on.
Jacobson added the child care issue won’t be properly fixed until workers are paid a living wage and have benefits, something most child care employees do not have. With the NDCCAA policy recommendation failing to pass, Jacobson is hoping people will get involved locally and push for change.
As the child care crisis rages on in North Dakota, Laverdure does not underestimate the importance of accessible child care in rural communities, as having reliable services is essential for ensuring that rural families are able to support themselves and stay in their homes.
“The success of all other industries really pivots on the availability of child care." Laverdure said. "We can't have labor in any other industry if we don't have a way to get those employees to their job.”
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