Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

Child care survey

The Bend Chamber of Commerce is surveying employers and employees to learn how a lack of available and affordable child care affects Central Oregon’s economy. The survey, which runs until July 1, is available at https://bendchamber.org/community/child-care-needs-survey/

When Wintress Lovering decided to return to work and started looking for child care for her young daughter in February, she heard the same response from several centers: they were full, but maybe she could try in the fall — of 2019.

Lovering eventually found a program that will take her two children — a preschooler and a first-grader — for four hours, three days a week. It’s enough child care that she’s now able to work part-time from home, but she spent months in a limbo of waiting lists.

“It definitely felt constricting not being able to go in one direction or the other,” Lovering said.

Her experience is similar to those of many families in Deschutes County, where more than 60 percent of children younger than 6 have either two working parents or a single parent who’s working. Child care facilities have waiting lists with at least 100 students and Oregon State University, which tracks child care availability and cost county-by-county, reports that there are 17 spots in child care centers or home-based care facilities for every 100 children in Deschutes County. And those are just available spots, not necessarily affordable ones. The median annual cost of child care for a toddler in Deschutes County is about $8,800 a year, according to Oregon State University. That’s about 8 percent of the annual income for a median family of four in the county, 43 percent of the annual earnings of a minimum wage worker and more expensive than a year of in-state tuition at one of Oregon’s public universities.

For Lovering, the cost of half-day care three days a week is about $600 a month. Other Bend residents who responded to a survey released last week by the Bend Chamber of Commerce said child care is their second-highest expense, behind only rent or mortgage payments, said Jamie Christman, the chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs.

Like housing, a lack of access to quality child care affects Bend families across the economic spectrum, Christman said. The chamber’s survey, which had about 160 responses from employees and 100 from employers, aimed to gauge how a child care shortage affects workers and businesses trying to recruit and retain workers in a market where child care anecdotally sounds as hard or harder to find than housing.

“We have parents and families who are running out of options,” Christman said.

City Manager Eric King, responding to a question at last week’s state of the city address, said a lack of child care does make it harder to attract workers to Bend.

“If both spouses are working, child care is a key decision about moving here and creating jobs,” he said.

King suggested that people who want to help solve the child care problem find a way to work with the Bend Economic Development Advisory Board, a board of business leaders that advises the City Council on economic policy. The Chamber also has a task force researching the issue and possible policy changes.

The area’s largest employer, St. Charles Bend, is participating in the task force. Hospital spokeswoman Lisa Goodman said St. Charles Bend allows employees to contribute pre-tax money to flexible spending accounts to use for child care, but it doesn’t provide an on-site day care or much help to employees who need to find child care.

“We know anecdotally that some of our caregivers have expressed a difficulty finding child care,” Goodman said. “We certainly acknowledge the shortage of affordable quality child care.”

Seeing whether businesses will help employees pay their child care costs or set aside some business space for on-site child care is one option the chamber’s task force is looking at, said Kara Tachikawa, executive director of Inspire Early Learning Centers. Tachikawa reached out to the chamber last year to look for connections with other people and businesses who could help find solutions to long waiting lists at the preschool she runs, as well as others in Bend.

Inspire Early Learning Centers takes children from 6 months to 5 years old and can have up to 99 children at its east side location on Conners Avenue and 94 at its Simpson Avenue site. One location has a waiting list of 150 children, while the other has about 200, and there’s a prospect of a few spots opening when older kids graduate to kindergarten in the fall.

The child care shortage affects children across the board, but there’s more need for infants and toddlers because more preschools only accept children older than 2, Tachikawa said. But she said child care at all levels needs people and businesses to invest in facilities and resources to avoid scare stories like that of January Neatherlin, the Bend woman who was sentenced to more than 21 years in prison earlier this year after pleading guilty to drugging and abandoning children at her illegal day care center to go tanning.

“Hopefully we’ll get some businesses behind us and developers that want to help us fix this problem,” Tachikawa said.

At the Growing Tree Children’s Center in central Bend, executive director Tammy Rundle is facing the largest demand she’s seen in the 20 years she’s worked there. The Growing Tree, one of Bend’s largest child care centers, is licensed to have up to 92 children ages 6 weeks through 5 years old.

“My waiting list was 500 kids long, and I’ve now closed it because there is just no way they’ll ever get in,” she said.

Rundle said the Growing Tree has always had a long waiting list, but it’s escalated dramatically in the past five years. And because the center gives priority to siblings of children who are already enrolled, it’s hard for children to get in even if they’re on a waiting list.

“Everybody needs child care, but they’re not talking about it,” she said.

The Growing Tree owns its building, which was designed and built as a child care facility with help from Mt. Bachelor ski area founder Bill Healy. That allows the center to focus most of its fees — five full days a week costs $1,035 a month for infants and $770 a month for preschoolers — to services and paying living wages to employees, Rundle said.

As about 2,380 acres outside of current city limits are annexed and developed during the next two decades, city planners have stressed the need for complete neighborhoods: areas with homes, businesses, schools, parks, stores and restaurants in close proximity. The concept of complete neighborhoods should include quality child care facilities as well, Rundle said.

“If every large neighborhood had a child care center, those parents are not going to be traveling across the city to pick up and drop off their children and making traffic worse,” she said. “(Neighborhoods) do need restaurants and shops, and they also need child care.”

Along with planning at the city level, Rundle said she’s holding out hope that new philanthropists will follow Healy’s lead.

In the meantime, many parents in Bend are stuck on waiting lists, searching for alternative means of child care, shifting their work schedules so a parent can always be at home or stepping away from their jobs because child care isn’t available or affordable.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees employees of companies with at least 50 workers up to 12 unpaid weeks off to care for new babies or family medical conditions. Some companies also offer paid maternity or paternity leave.

Shanti O’Connor, a counselor and mother of a 7 year old and a 4 year old who runs women’s groups in downtown Bend, said she tells working mothers they need to begin searching for child care while they’re still pregnant. The long waiting lists and the short amount of time many mothers have with their children before returning to work, combined with an influx of new families moving to Bend and a shortage of enough trained professional caregivers, makes finding care hard, O’Connor said.

“I’m constantly telling them that you’ve got to start searching for what you’ll need a year or two out,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com