By Cynthia Rice and Meghan Tavormina

When news broke that Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH) would be closing its six on-site child care centers located throughout New Jersey by the end of September, mounting pressure and public outcry caused HMH to first delay the closure until at the end of the year. , before he finally reversed the decision completely.

In a statement, the healthcare company, which employs more than 35,000 people, said: “As we explore possibilities, we expect all viable solutions to include adjustments to our current operations. Until a way forward is identified, on-site daycares will remain open.

While the details are unclear, one thing is certain: New Jersey’s child care system remains failing.

In their initial facility closure announcement, HMH cited operational costs and staffing issues, saying that due to high capital costs and “significant New Jersey requirements,” child care was not available. more “a sustainable model for their organization”.

New Jersey child care providers — most of which are much smaller businesses than HMH — continue to struggle with program sustainability largely because of the chronic problem of finding and retaining staff. Parents can’t find child care because providers can’t find and retain staff at wages the centers can afford.

A national report recently released by the Center for American Progress indicated that, when ranked by annual salary, child care workers – 96.7% of whom are women – remain near the bottom of all occupations. Americans. Despite providing a service deemed essential at the start of the pandemic, the average child care teacher earns less than $30,000 a year, barely above the federal poverty level for a family of four. New Jersey used part of its COVID funds to provide child care staff with $1,000 retention/incentive bonuses, but that short-term fix did little to stop employees from looking for work elsewhere.

Since the pandemic, better paying job options have become available, causing a mass exodus from the childcare sector. The loss of staff has affected both programs and families. In New Jersey, there are more empty child care classrooms, leading to long waiting lists. In an attempt to retain and recruit staff, some providers offer higher salaries, but at a cost. Some use their own money or cover costs with credit they don’t have, leaving their programs financially vulnerable to sustaining unsustainable salaries.

During the pandemic, our federal and state governments have shown a strong commitment to supporting this essential industry. Federal funding has provided multiple COVID-related emergency grant opportunities and increased child care assistance for struggling providers. The New Jersey state budget for fiscal year 2023 maintained a higher and more stable payment practice for programs caring for children from low-income families and introduced a grant program to increase the program access for infants and toddlers – the age level for which care is hardest to come by. But the additional supports appear to have dried up at the federal level, and it’s too early to tell what the state’s next steps are to support this industry with both remaining federal dollars and additional state dollars.

If a health system as large as Hackensack Meridian Health is struggling with maintaining its child care operations, imagine how difficult it must be for centers with far fewer resources. Our working parents, their employers, our economy and our children deserve not just a sustainable model, but a strong, high quality and reliable education and care system.

Addressing the long-standing issues affecting child care, starting with resolving the staffing crisis, must be a team effort, including a renewed long-term funding commitment from the federal government and an ongoing commitment from our state. . A one-time injection of cash helps in an emergency, but is not the answer to the kinds of problems that plague this system. Child care is as essential today as it was at the start of the pandemic, and our policies must reflect the importance to children, families, and the state economy.

Cynthia Rice is a Senior Policy Analyst for the New Jersey Children’s Advocates (ACNJ.

Meghan Tavormina is president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children (NJAEYC).

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today at NJ.com.

bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinionand find NJ.com Reviews on Facebook.