Are you a parent in Greenville County struggling to find quality, affordable childcare for your little ones? You’re not alone. The shortage of available childcare is at an all-time high, and it’s not just impacting parents but the whole community as well. In this episode, we sit down with Derek Lewis, Executive Director of Greenville First Steps, to discuss the statistics and issues behind the childcare crisis in Greenville County. With most childcare providers struggling to find staff, parents are left waiting for months or even years before they can secure a spot. Tune in to learn why this is happening, what it means for us all, and what we can do about it. Don’t miss this eye-opening discussion that will leave you thinking about the future of our community.
Katy Smith: Parents of infants and young children in Greenville County know childcare in our area is expensive, and that’s if you can even find a spot. Moms and dads who sign up for childcare, as soon as they find out they are pregnant, are likely to discover that their children will be able to walk before they can get a slot in a childcare center.
This lack of quality, affordable childcare has implications for our whole community. I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, I’m joined by Derek Lewis, executive Director of Greenville first Steps. He’ll discuss some of the reasons we are in this childcare shortage, what it means for our community, and some things that we can do about it.
Delighted to be here with Derek today, who I work closely with as the Advocacy Roundtable Chair for Greater Good Greenville, but he also serves as the executive director of Greenville First Steps, and that is the capacity in which he’s here to talk with us today.
Thanks for being here, Derek.
Derek Lewis: Thanks for having me. Uh, it’s very strange to be on the other side of the table where I have to answer questions for a little bit, but we’re excited to talk about childcare in Greenville.
Katy Smith: So I know there are many parents in Greenville County who are so delighted with the childcare that they have and the providers who care for their kids each day. But we have a shortage for sure. Can you give us some, uh, any data or figures to document that?
Derek Lewis: Yeah, so we know we have about 200 childcare providers in Greenland County. What we found out as a result of Covid. Most of those providers closed. Um, and if you remember, we went back to the county and got CARES funding, which allowed us to basically give one time money to childcare providers who weren’t open to help them reopen.
And within about six months, we were able to put about $4 million into those childcare providers . And all but about five of them reopened as a result of that. The problem is, they can’t find staff. And so if you call a center, they’ll tell you they’re open, but they’ll tell you they’re full, but they’re at 75% capacity of what they were pre covid.
So the doors are open, but they’ve got an empty 4K classroom because there’s no worker to put in that classroom for, you know, nine, 10 hours a day for five days.
Katy Smith: Wow. So full doesn’t mean we need more childcare provider buildings. We need more staff working in those buildings to be able to bring them up to capacity.
Derek Lewis: Right. So we surveyed the 200 ish that are open now and just said, you know, where are you compared to pre covid? And on average, most of ’em are about at 75% capacity. And so yeah, it’s, they, they need people to put into those rooms so they can reopen those rooms. . And so that’s, that’s a real burden because if the providers go too long without those rooms being open, they won’t be able to make their annual budgets, which does, I think, put us in a bad place for 2024,
Katy Smith: 2025.
Sure. Yeah. Oh my goodness. Do you know anything about the numbers of children that are waiting or don’t have care where there are parents seeking care?
Derek Lewis: Well, we knew before Covid that infant care is already in dire need in Greenville County, and it is not just for low income families. I mean, we have an 11 year old and I remember when we found out we were expecting him, uh, we called childcare providers before we called our parents. And, uh, we didn’t get off a list for, you know, 12, 18 months.
So that’s a reality in Greenville County that has not gotten better and certainly has gotten worse. When you get into older care, there seems to be more space. So if you, because the ratio of infants to teachers is like one to five, one to six, it takes more people to serve the same number of kids as say, a 4K classroom, which can hold 18 to 24 kids with maybe one or one, one or two staff.
So when you get to four year olds it seems to settle down, but it’s really infant toddler care that there’s just a dire shortage of in our community.
Katy Smith: This may go without saying, but let’s go ahead and name some of the reasons that good available quality childcare are important to the whole community, not just to those parents who need it.
Derek Lewis: Yes. So we learned during covid, families can’t go back to work if their kids are at home. Right? And so we learned that both with school-aged kids, but also with infants and toddlers that we got countless calls from the chamber saying “this assembly line is closed because they don’t have any workers, because all the workers are staying home to watch children.”
And so certainly businesses can’t stay open if families can’t find childcare. But from a school readiness perspective, we also know that the kids who miss those years of childcare struggle to catch up to their peers. Mainly in social skills, right? So if, if you are not in a room with other children and you’re just in your house with your siblings every day for four years, then things like following directions and standing in a line and sitting with your friends and sharing, and you know, all of those things have to be taught.
And you can’t really teach them in a home environment where there’s just one or two children. Their social emotional development is, is far lacking, but also their early literacy numbers are much lower than kids who are in some kind of formalized childcare where maybe they’re read to every day.
Katy Smith: Yep. And I feel like that is true across the board. I mean, listeners who themselves haven’t been in this boat or parents recently, you might have assumptions about who we’re talking about who might struggle with early literacy. But I know I, as a parent who I’m college educated master’s degree, I wasn’t really aware of what my kids were capable of.
And being in an early care environment, I thought, “oh, you mean my nine month old can finger paint? Isn’t that dangerous?” You know? But no, it’s time to expose him. And so they just infuse so much more knowledge about what’s possible. So that’s really important. Okay, so if the challenge really then is getting workers in childcare centers to help provide childcare, what are the obstacles and what are the possibilities?
Derek Lewis: Yeah. So you know, this is the catch 22 for childcare workforce, right? So the solution would be pay more and people would come. They would leave their job at Chick-fil-A and come back to work. Well, chick-fil-a’s paying what, $15 an hour? If these childcare providers increase their pay to $15 an hour, it would increase the weekly rates of families by 30 or 40%, because almost every dollar that a childcare provider collects goes into salaries for the workers.
So a 30, 40% increase in a $200 a week childcare bill is just too much for families to be able to absorb. And so then you get to the point where the families can’t afford to go back to work because the childcare is more expensive than the salary they’re bringing in. So I think paying our workers more is going to be an essential part of it because they, this workforce needs to attract people to leave these other pretty high paying hourly jobs and come in to come back to this workforce.
There are some other ways though, besides just paying them more money that could be done. So in Louisiana, for example, the State General Assembly has adopted policy to provide tax benefits to people who provide childcare. So those are both the owners of the childcare center, but also the workers in the childcare center.
So I can have my personal income tax rate cut if I’m an employee in a childcare center. The owner can have part of their property taxes rate cut if they own a high quality childcare . Center. So then it doesn’t necessarily technically cost money, although it, you know, is a reduction in the tax bill those people pay, but then it doesn’t get passed on to the family. So the family’s, you know, weekly rate of 180, $200 a week kinda stays flat. And I think the other thing to look at though is, you know, we have this childcare sector, and for the most part, pre Covid, really the only reason people left that workforce was if they were qualified to go work in the school district.
Ultimately people, that’s where they wanna end up because you get quality health insurance, you get a salary, not an hourly, you get state retirement. I mean, there’s lots of benefits for being in the school district. One thing First Steps has been looking at is should we create a pipeline that says, we’ll take you from Greenville Techs early childhood two year program.
We’ll put you in the childcare center while you develop skills, we’ll help you get your four year degree. And then once you get your degree, we know you’re leaving, but there’ll be another Greenville Tech student that we can move into those positions. And so how do we create this kind of flow of talent that’s working them up towards these higher paying jobs, but recognizes that for a couple years they can live off of $15 an hour.
Um, and so how do we kind of create that partnership with Greenville Tech or with Anderson University or USC Upstate to kind of help people move along that continuum.
Katy Smith: Brilliant. I mean, and that’s such a great example of public-private partnership and how we all need to come together as a system because we all benefit. Even if you don’t have children. You have employees, you want kids to do well in school with more qualified staff there working with.
Derek Lewis: Yeah. I think the other thing you know, as we think about like the nonprofit sector and kind of the audience that, that you and I talked to with this podcast, to me, the one thing that’s occurred to me is we need employers to be thinking strategically about how to support the families’ that are their workers.
And so, you know, does a childcare center need eight classrooms and 120 kids, or is this really a four person classroom in an empty room in this building that this nonprofit may be already paying rent in? Right? Is that a good way to help your workers? Could you pay for just round the clock, nine to five childcare to be provided on site for your employees?
You know where they’re gonna come from, you know how they’re gonna benefit from it, you know they’re gonna be able to come to work. And so, you know, to me, I think that might also be a great opportunity for this sector to think about maybe how to take the lead in offering childcare to their employees as a benefit.
The employee can get a benefit, but the employer also gets the benefit of knowing you’re gonna show up for work tomorrow.
Katy Smith: Right, because everyone is struggling with workforce issues. Nonprofit sector for sure. And I think we all often say, what are some unique benefits that we can offer that others can’t? Certainly the focus on mission is something that is valuable to a lot of folks over money. But at some point you gotta pay the bills, so making childcare available could be a huge benefit and a natural fit.
Derek Lewis: And even if you couldn’t offer it on site, you know if, if you’re in an organization that’s a people organization that serves clients, can you identify clients who could provide care in their home? And, you know, there are systems in place through First Steps and through Palmetto Shared Services where if somebody wants to watch five kids in their house, we can help them become licensed.
We can get them all the training they need. They can go through DSS and shared services to get kind of all of these resources to get them open. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be like, will you convert this broom closet into a childcare center? But, you know, could, could this client you’re working with take care of five employees kids, and could you then cover the, you know, $800 a month for that fee if it meant that five employees could come to work?
Katy Smith: Innovative. That’s great. So Derek, if people had their ideas for what they might do in whatever way and First Steps or Shared Services could be helpful to them, what should they do? Should they give you a call?
Derek Lewis: People can go to Greenville first steps.org or they can send me an email or a call and we can connect them both with DSS and with Shared services to kind of get them on that pathway. The Shared Services Alliance, which is a nonprofit that’s run out of Greenville County.
Actually, that’s all they do is provide backend support for childcare providers and help people get along that pipeline. And so they’ve already got online trainings that you can just watch and work your way through that they developed with the Chamber of Commerce here in Greenville to really kind of get that process as smooth as possible so you don’t have to not work for a month to take all these trainings and lose your income too. Like you can have your day job, take these classes at night, and then open your center when you’re, when you feel you’re ready.
Katy Smith: Fabulous. Well, Derek, thank you so much for all that you do for children, families, and for everyone here in Greenville County who should believe that children are our future. Not to be corny, but believe it. I believe it too. All right, well, thank you Derek.
Derek Lewis: Thanks, Katy.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.