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Port Moody daycare operator warns of possible back-to-work crunch

A Port Moody daycare operator is worried parents returning to the workplace after months of working from home could be facing a crunch when they start looking for childcare.
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Danita Sepp stands in one of the daycare centres she had to close because of decreasing demand as parents continue to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The operator who sublet the facility is also struggling, and Sepp said she's worried some operators won't be able to adapt to changing needs quickly enough due to the multiple levels of regulation.

A Port Moody daycare operator is sounding the alarm that the reopening of workplaces could create a squeeze on available spaces for pre-school and out-of-school care.

And, says Danita Sepp, a multi-layered array of regulations, licensing requirements and funding arrangements make it difficult for facilities to make quick adjustments to changing needs, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way many people work.

Sepp operates Block 8 Academy. Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, she anticipated both her locations would hit their combined licensed capacity of 70 kids by that fall. But as public health restrictions kept parents working remotely from their homes, demand plummeted.

Some daycares closed. Other operators, like Sepp, scaled back; she sublet one of her locations to another operator.

“Screens have largely become another daycare,” Sepp said, as some parents still working from home have elected to save the money they’d otherwise put towards childcare costs and instead employ the TV, tablet or home computer to keep their kids occupied.

Brad Soltani, who took over the 10 licensed spots at Block 8’s shuttered facility, said he’s also struggled since opening as uncertainty about the course of the public health crisis and employers’ plans to bring employees back into the workplace makes it difficult for families to plan ahead.

“Parents are saying they’re not sure when they will be going back to work,” he said. “We have lost clients because parents are working remotely from home.”

Both operators said while adjustments they’ve made to their businesses have allowed them to continue to care for the kids they do have in their charge, regulations and licensing requirements at the municipal, regional and provincial levels could make it difficult to get back up to full capacity or tailor their ability to provide care where it’s needed most.

“When there’s too much red tape, it’s hard to adjust,” Sepp said, adding eligibility requirements for various funding programs offered by the federal and provincial governments to open additional spaces or keep existing ones affordable for working parents also present challenges.

Specifically, she pointed to program that boosts wages for daycare workers with their Early Childhood Education certification by up to $4 an hour, but doesn’t apply to employees who may have a bachelor’s degree instead, or are qualified as a responsible adult.

Sepp said that makes it difficult to attract employees to work with school-aged children.

And should demand for out-of-school care pick up again when parents head back to the workplace, they could be left in a lurch.

“It leaves us wondering if the government really understands daycare in our community,” Sepp said in an email she sent to incumbent Port Moody-Coquitlam MP Nelly Shin, as well as Port Moody MLA Rick Glumac.

In a statement, B.C.’s Minister of State for Child Care, Katrina Chen, acknowledged “many child care providers have struggled to stay afloat.”

But, she added, the provincial government provided nearly $320 million in temporary emergency funding to about 4,500 child care operators in the first several months of the pandemic to help protect spaces. As well, other programs to reduce the fees parents pay while enhancing the wages of early childhood educators have helped keep spaces affordable and inclusive.

“Child care providers and their staff have adapted to meet the changing needs of local families,” Chen said.

Still, Soltani said the myriad of regulations imposed by provincial and federal ministries, along with regional health authorities and local governments, lack cohesion.

“It can’t be more confusing, it’s like a treasure map,” he said. “It makes it difficult for somebody who wants to own a daycare.”

Often, Sepp said, those potential independent operators are women or immigrants, discouraging diversity in the industry as well as the opening of new spaces.

“We’re frustrated,” she said. “We want to be heard, we want to be included.”