The first phase of a study released by the First 5 Orange County Children and Families Commission has found that the California county had a significant shortage of child care even before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
The Orange County Child Care Landscape Analysis, released on Oct. 7, was compiled from information collected between November 2019 and February 2020—but the report also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had “severe impacts” on the county’s child care system, including closed programs and reduced capacities.
The analysis was conducted by NP Strategies on behalf of the commission, and looked at care options for children up to 5 years old. It reported that all available parents and caregivers for 60 percent of the young children in the county are in the workforce.
“With the high cost of living in Orange County, it really relies on all parents and caregivers working,” said Rebecca Alvarez, principal and co-founder of NP Strategies, in a Zoom presentation with First 5 Orange County on Oct. 7.
Licensed child care facilities have space available for only 5 percent of children 2 years old and younger, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, 70 percent of preschool-aged children from 3 to 4 years old have licensed child care available.
Other reported challenges include the need for all-day care for parents who work full-time, as well as child care availability during nontraditional hours, such as evenings, nights, weekends.
Some parents have been forced to switch from full-time to part-time work because of the lack of child care availability, said Wallace Walrod, chief economic adviser at the Orange County Business Council, who also gave a presentation.
“Some are unable to accept employment at all due to lack of child care,” Walrod said.
Child care is costly, according to the report. The average price for child care for one infant or toddler is $15,650 per year in Orange County. The average cost for two children totals $26,150 per year.
A family in the county with a median income would have to spend 26 percent of its budget on child care, while 10 percent would be considered “affordable,” the report stated.
While the families of more than half of children who are 4 years old and younger are eligible for state or federal subsidized child care programs, there’s not enough funding to provide care for all of those children.
“Six percent of eligible infants and toddlers are served by subsidized programs,” said Alvarez.
Other challenges include parents arriving late to work or leaving early due to child care issues, or missing out on promotions because of the additional hours that would be required.
Child care providers also face difficulties finding appropriate facilities for infant and toddler care in Orange County, and retaining quality employees has been an ongoing problem.
“Child care workers are more likely to live in poverty than other workers and other educators,” said Alvarez.
The reimbursement rates from subsidized programs often don’t cover the costs of operating a child care facility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has likely made things worse. Unemployment in Orange County jumped from less than 4 percent in March to more than 14 percent in May, before falling to just under 10 percent in August.
The report stated that while it “did not know the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on child care providers,” it noted that “many are struggling.”
At the Oct. 7 Zoom meeting, Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who is also a First 5 commissioner, said he was partnering with Supervisor Andrew Do to provide some funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for child care providers.
“We’re looking at a $5 million amount to go out to child care providers to help them with the appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment] and other things that are COVID-related. It’s very essential that we have adequate child care as we open up the workforce,” Chaffee said.
The next phase of the child care analysis is now to study how these issues affect Orange County’s economy, workers, parents, and caregivers, and how the county compares to the rest of the state and nation.
The findings will be presented later this year, and recommendations will be issued to the commission at that time.