Big Challenges Remain on New Childcare Deal

by Markus O'Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

Parents paying for child care, or those who might one day soon, are cheering loudly as Ontario becomes the last province to sign on to the Federal $10-a-day plan. And they should: the new child care deal is great news for families struggling to pay the high cost of child care as it is now. But for those who administer child care in our community, the new deal raises serious questions for child care providers who already struggle to meet demand.

When dropping off my children at the Glen Cameron for Kids Child Care Centre this week, I checked in with Mary Davis, the centre's long-time director.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," she said, with calls from parents who didn't know that the just-announced program is in fact being phased in.

The Province has committed to an "average" 25% reduction in fees, retroactive to April 1, for children 5 years of age or younger. A reduction to 50% would be introduced in December 2022, with the $10-a-day program fully implemented by September 2025. To say that the parents were anxious to get their children into that $10 a day child care deal would be an understatement.

While the issue of fees has been addressed in some detail, the issue of physical spaces thus far has not.

June Karim, director of Yonge Hearts Child Care Centre, has already noticed an uptick in calls looking for affordable child care space.

"We're already running at full capacity already," she said when we spoke this week. "I don't know where we're going to put them."

Willowdale parents have struggled for years with a scarcity of spaces and waiting lists that could be up to two years long. Even if families could shoulder the enormous burden of child care, they couldn't find a space to spend it on.

Adding demand isn't going to make things easier. The deal promises 86,000 new spaces in Ontario, with no details on how this number will be achieved. And even if successfully constructed, it may only be a fraction of what's needed. Some experts believe the target should be more like 300,000.

With real estate prices skyrocketing, how will providers find land to build new centres and create these spaces? The answer is likely in the podiums of new condo towers. We've seen great examples of developers collaborating with public officials to include child care in their plans in projects like the Yonge-Sheppard Centre, or M2M development at Yonge and Cummer.

But with recent Provincial planning changes setting in, governments no longer have leverage to negotiate these facilities as part of a development package. Land owners can get a much simpler or more lucrative deal through the Ontario Lands Tribunal, and are no longer bothering with local needs or negotiations. This needs to change.

Another significant concern cited by Mary Davis is a centre's ability to find staff. She's having trouble finding qualified staff right now, which has already caused some rooms to be recently closed. What's going to happen when thousands of new workers are needed throughout the system?

It's estimated that the average time an ECE worker stays in the field is only three years. Low wages and a high cost of living in Toronto doesn't make child care an easy career. The deal offers a new salary "floor" of $18/hour, but more work is going to be needed to ensure that these jobs are viable with high quality staff to ensure that new centres can work.

This week's announcement was good news. It will ease the burden on young families, allow more participation in the job market and help to grow our economy with benefits for all. But let's not kid ourselves. The hardest work is yet to come.

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