Subsidized Quebec home daycare operators face uncertain future
Daycare fee hikes, lack of support and struggle to fill spots putting operators out of business
For the past 12 years, Nathalie Pelletier has happily run a subsidized daycare out of her Lachine home.
But she's worried increased daycare fees could put her and other operators out of a job.
"Family daycares are in danger," said Pelletier, who is licensed for six children.
This year, parents who have children in a subsidized daycare will have to pay an extra fee based on their family income when they file their income taxes this spring.
For some parents, it could mean owing the government as much as $2,300 per child.
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Some parents have already told Pelletier they don't know where they'll find the money to pay the extra fee.
Pelletier is concerned some parents may pull their children out and put them in private, unregulated daycares, because it's all they can afford.
"I know some girls already have missing spots in the daycare, and they're struggling and don't know if they will stay open or not because of it," said Pelletier.
I keep doing it because I love it...but I am often in a deficit,- Nathalie Pelletier , subsidized home daycare owner
All this at a time when many daycares are grappling with budget cuts, salary freezes and rising costs.
Groceries, games, toys and outings all come out of Pelletier's salary.
She won't cut corners on nutrition, but soaring grocery costs mean she's clipping coupons and shopping around for deals.
She now also relies on parents to help out with special field trips.
"I keep doing it because I love it, I love working with kids," said Pelletier. "But I am often in a deficit."
The privatization of child care
Subsidized home daycares, which are known as milieu familial because they are run out of homes, make up about 40 per cent of all subsidized spots in Quebec. That's about 91,000 places.
They receive $7.55 a day, directly from parents. The remainder of their funding comes from the government.
The government now invests about $2 billion a year in the subsidized sector.
Parents who send their children to private daycares can apply for a tax credit from the government and receive a certain amount back based on their income.
For some families, it worked out to almost the same amount they'd pay for a spot in the public system.
"So it's kind of, in a very subtle way, encouraging people to go into the private sector," said Christa Japel, a daycare expert at Université du Québec à Montréal.
Japel said she noticed in 2008 that the government was starting to move towards the privatization of child care, adding that private daycares are cheaper for the government.
"They cost less than any subsidized childcare place," said Japel. "So it's marketing. It's money. It's cutting back because we all go, 'Oh my god, we're spending so much on childcare,' not realizing this is an investment for the future."
Cynthia Buckley says she reluctantly shut her doors before the government did it for her.
After 11 years of operating her own subsidized home daycare in Île Perrot, located just off the western tip of the Island of Montreal, Buckley closed in January.
"I really feel the government put me in a situation where it was that, or they would be taking away my job," said Buckley, who took an office job outside the daycare industry.
Buckley says she didn't mind the hard work.
A typical work week was 50 hours long with the children.
Evenings and weekends were often spent on paperwork, meal planning, shopping and cleaning.
"It's really a 24/7 job," said Buckley.
But her most difficult challenge was keeping her six spots full.
"I really enjoyed my job, but after awhile, the major stress was the fact I could lose my clients and not find anyone to replace them," said Buckley.
Being down one spot was worrisome, but if she had two or three open spots, half of her salary was gone.
Subsidized home daycare workers are considered business owners although their budget is set by the government. They are not eligible for employment insurance.
When the government first started talking about increasing daycare fees in 2014, many parents pleaded with Buckley to go private. She refused.
"I had parents who'd say, 'Sorry Cynthia, we love you, we know you're great, but I am going to go where it's cheaper," said Buckley, who took pride in being a regulated, subsidized daycare.
The government is pushing the parents into the private daycares, - Cynthia Buckley, subsidized home daycare operator who closed her doors
In the region Buckley operated, which stretches from Île-Perrot to Coteau-du-Lac, there are currently more than 700 unfilled spots in subsidized, home daycares.
And every month, she sees a newsletter from the local co-ordinating bureau with a growing list of subsidized home daycares that have shut their doors.
Buckley says it doesn't help that the government has yet to include them on the centralized daycare website, La Place 0-5, which displays a universal wait list for all public daycare spots across the province. Their exclusion from the web portal limits their exposure to parents searching for a spot.
Now that the subsidized daycare fees have gone up, she thinks more parents will leave for the private sector, putting many home daycares out of business.
For her, the uncertainty just got to be too much.
"The government is pushing the parents into the private daycares," said Buckley. "By doing so, we are having to close our doors. And eventually, when there aren't enough of us and we can't fill spots, there's only going to be one type of daycare offered — and that is going to be the private daycares.
And then the parents are going to turn around and say, what happened to our subsidized daycare? Well, it's gone."
CBC Montreal Investigates asked Minister of Families Sebastien Proulx to clarify the government's commitment to subsidized home daycares.
His office said he was unavailable for an interview.
A spokeswoman said the government supports a parent's freedom to choose which daycare environment is right for their child.
Since 2009, the government said the total number of places in subsidized family daycares has remained stable, around 91,600.
The government said it is working to integrate subsidized home daycares into the centralized daycare web site, La Place 0-5, but it couldn't say when that would be finalized.