Students from kindergarten to fifth grade, each within their own workstations in October, attend their respective schools remotely from Tot Spot Too, a child care center in Pittsfield. Concerned with the cost of child care, some Berkshire County lawmakers have backed legislation to increase tax deductions for child care expenses, as well as an effort to establish universal child care in Massachusetts.

BOSTON — For child care centers and families, the past year has been a difficult one.

Many parents unable to afford child care during the coronavirus pandemic, especially women, have left the workforce to look after their children. And strapped by reduced class sizes and yearslong financial struggles, child care workers remain largely unvaccinated and with little pay.

Concerned with the cost of child care, some Berkshire County lawmakers have backed legislation to increase tax deductions for child care expenses, as well as an effort to establish universal child care in Massachusetts. They are urging greater funding for child care than the $165 million increase Gov. Charlie Baker recommended.

“I’m just concerned that he has not set enough aside for child care and [did not] put child care right at the very center of the reopening of Massachusetts,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

Farley-Bouvier and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, have backed a $600 million effort to create a publicly funded child care system. A separate Hinds bill would increase the tax deduction cap to reimburse qualifying individuals for up to $9,600 spent on child care, and up to $19,200 for two individuals.

“It’s allowing folks to either spend more on child care, understanding that they’ll have a further deduction at the end of the year, or it’ll assist them with the other needs of their family, because they’ll have more that they can deduct,” Hinds said of his bill.

Some child care professionals say that while the Hinds bill would help families that pay out of pocket, families relying on state subsidies to pay for care might not see any benefit.

“I think that’s a great act that Sen. Hinds has put forth, but I don’t think it really adds anything to our families who are on state subsidy,” said Maureen Pavolko, director of Tot Spot Too in Pittsfield.

“A lot of our families don’t make $19,000 in a year, so, that’s not going to be beneficial to them,” said Gina Blake, vice president of programs for 18 Degrees, which provides family services in Western Massachusetts. “Seventy-four percent of [families] have some sort of subsidy to be able to access our care.”

Centers’ struggles

Child care centers across Berkshire County have faced extreme financial difficulties with reduced capacity during the pandemic and the need to bring on more staff to supervise students. With what they see as consistently low state funding, many child care workers feel that they are not taken seriously by the state.

“It’s tough. It’s like a slap in the face” said Kelly Marion, CEO of the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield who feels that the state urging centers to step up at the start of the pandemic has not been matched by investment in centers.

Some centers also have faced significant delays in getting personal protective equipment, despite the state’s commitment to provide it to centers in need.

“We’re supposed to get PPE supplies for free. Our center in particular has put in for it the last two months, received emails that said ‘your request was accepted,’ and we haven’t seen anything,” Pavolko said. “I don’t want to speak for any other center, but ... I don’t think we’re really being heard on the state level, and that’s really sad. That’s one of the reasons we cannot keep employees.”

Low pay in the sector also contributes to a high turnover rate. Despite the state’s push for more child care professionals to have bachelor’s degrees, many are paid at or near the $13.50-an-hour minimum wage, making the work untenable for some, Farley-Bouvier said.

“Early educators at this point are paid more if they’re babysitters instead of teachers, and we need to recognize them as the professionals they are,” she said.

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Pavolko said the state once said that all child care workers needed to have bachelor’s degrees by 2010.

“And, of course, 2010 has come and gone, and one of the reasons we don’t have a lot of people going back to school is because it just doesn’t pay,” Pavolko said. “So, I think a lot has been lost in the translation between us and the state. I don’t think our government really realizes exactly how much and what we do here.”

Many families need transportation to get to child care, but many providers have cut the service entirely to offset the rise in expenses. Those who continue to run buses experience significant delays, operating at reduced capacity and having to sanitize between trips.

“We continue to offer transportation, which is very costly and restricted due the COVID protocols of the spacing of children and the cleaning that needs to take place. We’re trying to brainstorm together about different things and how to stay afloat, but really, there are many [centers] that are struggling financially,” said Blake, of 18 Degrees.

Pavolko called transportation during the pandemic “chaotic.”

“Because we’re not allowed to put more than three or four children in a van at a time, our real struggle now is getting them out to their schools on time,” Pavolko said. “The public schools have done really well with giving a 15-minute window for both pickup and drop-off, which has helped a lot, but our transportation piece still is what gives us our biggest difficulties.”

Women and the workforce

When schools are remote and families cannot afford child care, it has been women who have suffered the most.

“Women ... left the workforce in order to care for their kids,” Farley-Bouvier said. “Women are just saying, ‘I can’t do this to my kids anymore. I can’t do this for my family. It’s too much.’ And so they’re leaving the workforce.”

A December report from the National Women’s Law Center found that the net loss of 140,000 jobs nationwide in December were all women’s jobs.

Lower-income families and frontline workers during the pandemic have been affected disproportionally, with many parents having to drop out of the workforce to provide for their children. This is devastating for lower-income families in the Berkshires that needed subsidies to access care in the first place, centers say.

“And many of those families are from diverse backgrounds, people of color,” Blake said. “And so those are the folks that we’re seeing, they’re experiencing poverty. They come from single-parent families who have to work full time, and they’re really reeling from this, and there’s a loss of productivity. If these folks can’t go to work, then businesses aren’t going to be able to open.”

The $1.9 trillion federal COVID-19 relief plan expands tax credits aimed at helping parents pay for child care, and Democratic leaders have said they hope to make those provisions permanent.

At the state level, support is building for universal child care, but it’s unclear when action might be taken on that proposal.

“I’ve been doing this almost 30 years, and nothing has changed, and I hope it does,” Pavolko said. “I hope it really does change for future teachers out there. I just haven’t seen it yet.”