Red tape a big barrier to boosting child-care spaces in N.L., say unlicensed providers
As the province seeks to increase affordable spots in the regulated child-care sector, some people working in unregulated child care say the impending changes offer no incentives for them to get licensed, and in some cases may actually make it harder to stay in a field that can't keep up with demand.
The Sept. 30 budget contained a big boost for child care with the promise of funding 8,000 $25-a-day daycare spaces across Newfoundland and Labrador, starting in January. It's a shot in the arm for the sector, particularly for parents — but unregulated day homes won't qualify, and the operator of one such home says she can't afford to work at that rate without a subsidy.
"I don't think I would be able to compete with that, at all," said Alicia Simms, who runs Little Munchkins Day Home in Conception Bay South.
Simms says she's swamped with parents looking for spaces, getting two or three requests per day. She charges a weekly rate that works out to close to $40 per day, but if parents demanded $25, she "definitely would get out of child care altogether," she said.
It's a tricky balance for operators to figure out what form of care they can manage to provide in the current system. Becoming regulated includes perks, like availing of government subsidies and being able to look after more children; regulated operators can take in up to six children, while unlicensed are capped at four, full time.
Simms, who worked at a regulated centre before becoming a mother and deciding to work from home, looked into getting regulated a year ago. But she said she was told she'd have to make a lengthy list of renovations to meet the codes, such as changing all the windows in her house, dividing her backyard and figuring out an alternative washroom, as the one she had was on a floor of the house with no exit to the outdoors.
"It's not feasible for me," she said.
"We bought our home, newly renovated. Our house is still fairly new. Our windows aren't even 10 years old."
Rules 'are silly'
As the name suggests, the number of unregulated providers in Newfoundland and Labrador isn't tracked and there's no official sense of how many children they look after. According to numbers from the provincial government, there are about 8,100 registered spaces, and 20,000 children under the age of four in Newfoundland and Labrador.
What is clear is demand for space of any kind is high, and as the province injects millions of dollars into the regulated sector with the $25-a-day pledge, it hopes the allure of subsidies creates more licensed providers.
"I think with this program you'll see a growth in the number of [regulated] spaces, or at least that's my hope," Education Minister Tom Osborne told CBC News hours after the provincial budget was released.
"We are encouraging the unregulated to have a look at this."
But it appears few unregulated operators are on the fence.
"Their rules to me, in my opinion, are silly," said Stella Michel, an unregulated child-care provider in Corner Brook, citing an example of a colleague who was told her play structure didn't meet code because it was built on grass, instead of crushed stone.
"I can take my child-care kids outside. I know full well I can handle these three or four kids … without me having to dig up my yard and put down crushed stone, just simple little things like that."
Similar to Simms, Michel said there's no shortage of parents looking for daycare spaces. She estimated as much as 40 per cent of Corner Brook's child-care scene is unregulated, and among her colleagues, the strict government conditions are the top reason people stay that way.
"it all boils down to the regulations," she said.
"It's sad, because if we did get registered, it would open up two more spaces in every unregistered day home. So it would end up with more child-care spots, if we did step up and get regulated, but I think as long as the policies and procedures are in place with these rules and stuff, I don't see it happening any time soon."
Cynthia Lidstone, an unregulated provider in St John's for more than two decades, agrees. Part of her programming includes play groups and library visits, which she said would be off-limits if she went above board.
"I don't want as many restrictions on myself, or the children. I wanted to be able to enjoy being able to take kids to the outings," she said.
The price of freedom
One negative Lidstone sees to her setup is having to advertise herself, instead of being able to avail of government lists of providers — although she, like others, said finding parents isn't a problem.
Lidstone recalled years ago the province dangling financial incentives to become a registered operator, and thinks that may be worth revisiting.
"Basically, [anything] I'm trying to put into my daycare, I'm doing out of my own pocket," she said.
While freedom is a plus, Michel said being unregulated isn't about making more money; she estimates she makes about $4 an hour by charging $40 per day.
The lack of regulations also means there's no ability to guarantee quality or care, or cleanliness of space.
Simms — a Level 1 early childhood educator — said she creates monthly programming calendars for her kids, just as she did when she worked at a daycare centre.
Michel said just because she's unregulated, that doesn't mean she doesn't go to great lengths to keep her house clean, particularly in the pandemic era — she says she spends an extra hour each day disinfecting.
"I have to," she said. "This is my home. And I don't want kids getting sick, or families getting sick, because of something that happens here in my house."