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Tracy Saarikoski, executive director of Discovery Early Learning and Care in Sudbury, Ont. on March 6. Saarikoski believes the sector is in a workforce crisis and says eight ECE's have left the childcare centre so far this year.Gino Donato/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this month, Tracy Saarikoski, the executive director of Discovery Early Learning and Care, a daycare in Sudbury, Ont., was on the verge of having to call families and tell them there wouldn’t be care available on Monday. Between educators quitting and others calling in sick, there almost wasn’t enough staff for adequate coverage.

Fortunately, staff from another of the organization’s locations were able to fill in.

Discovery Early Learning and Care runs four centres in and around Sudbury, with licences for about 400 children in total. More than 800 families are on the organization’s wait list, but it’s proving hard holding on to staff to keep up with demand.

People are leaving for less stressful jobs that pay just as well if not better. So far this year, eight employees out of approximately 100 have quit. Some took data entry jobs at the Canada Revenue Agency. Others left to be early childhood educators in schools, where they can make more than $10 an hour.

“We’re in a work force crisis,” Ms. Saarikoski says.

The Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care agreement, which promises to bring daycare fees down to an average of $10 a day by 2026, has benefited families – but less so the industry itself, according to operators. If governments want to stem the flow of early childhood educators leaving the profession, and fulfill the expansion goals of creating 250,000 new spaces by 2026, including 86,000 in Ontario, more funding dedicated to increasing wages and addressing other work force concerns must happen immediately, child-care advocates say.

“The work force issues are the linchpin to the whole system working at all,” says Rachel Vickerson, executive director of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario. “We’re seeing the shortages. And what we’re hearing from programs is that they’re not even able to think about expanding because they don’t have the staff and they can’t afford to pay the staff what they need to pay.”

In Ontario, a wage floor under the agreement set pay for early childhood educators at $18 an hour in 2022, with a $1 an hour raise each year through 2026. But child-care centres participating in CWELCC have had their parent fees frozen, and so struggle to increase wages, they say.

Still, with the province developing a strategy to help meet its expansion targets, the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario is recommending a salary scale that would start at $25 an hour for all child-care workers and $30 an hour for registered early childhood educators. That shows educators that they can stay in the field and grow in their profession and be compensated for that growth and development over their career,” Ms. Vickerson says.

Susan Roman, director of a child-care centre in Burlington, Ont., where a Help Wanted sign has been out front for weeks now, agrees that solving the work force issues is an urgent matter.

“I am not able to hire,” she says. “We’ve got ads and job posts running just about everywhere. And it’s been a struggle.”

Last month, Ms. Roman had to close her centre’s infant room because of employee shortages. Parents can access part-time care, but full-time care remains unavailable.

Asked about whether staffing issues would hamper progress toward $10-a-day daycare, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce referred to the expansion of a provincial “dual credit” program designed to train early childhood educators starting in high school. He said the program, announced last December, accelerates training to get workers into daycares sooner, and that the government has so far allowed 400 additional students to enroll.

“We’re going to need more people because we’re going to have more demand for it. It’s a good problem to have,” Mr. Lecce said, adding that the government is also seeking to attract early childhood educators from other provinces.

But the problem of child-care staff leaving the profession extends far beyond Ontario.

Between July, 2021, and December, 2022, Nova Scotia created just 400 new licensed child-care spaces out of a promised 1,500. The province blamed supply chain labour pressure for the shortfall.

A report released earlier this year by the Early Childhood Educators of BC found that 45 per cent of early childhood education centres in that province are losing more staff than they can hire. Low pay, poor working conditions and lack of benefits are to blame, the report said.

And in Quebec, the government estimates it will have to recruit nearly 18,000 educators to meet its goal of creating 37,000 subsidized spaces by March 2025.

“Programs are running at the bare minimum staffing requirements,” says Amanda Rosset, chair of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta. “So if there’s anyone sick, or if anyone needs to leave for an extended amount of time, some programs, sometimes they’re shutting down a room temporarily to accommodate or again, having to re-evaluate the programming they’re offering just because they don’t have the staff to maintain it.”

It is estimated that Alberta’s early learning and child-care sector will need to recruit and retain between 7,000 and 20,000 ECEs to meet the requirements of the province’s deal with the federal government, according to a report released by the AECEA last month.

To help reach that goal, the organization is recommending a wage grid that would range from $20.20 to $31.67 depending on education, experience and tenure.

Solutions to solving the work force issues in child care include offering benefits and paid sick days and helping people better understand that it is skilled work, says Carolyn Ferns, policy co-ordinator for the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.

But the effort must begin with higher wages, she says. “It’s time to pay attention to wages. It just becomes more and more clear every day. If programs can’t staff, we’re not going to be able to expand, we’re not going to be able to meet the demand.”

Ms. Saarikoski says many of her staff members are working second jobs to get by, and unless wages rise soon, more of them will probably quit.

“They leave a full, long, tiring day with us and then they’re working in the evenings, doing respite with families, or working in grocery stores or as servers and restaurants. They’re working on the weekend,” she says. “I need to get my wages up now, or at least the rest of the year or they’re going to be gone.”

With files from Jeff Gray

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