TAMPA, Fla. — At Love and Glory learning center in Tampa, months of low enrollment due to the pandemic have shifted.
"We're fully enrolled, but we have a lack of staff. We need more teachers," said Assistant Director Erica Agee. "We have a waiting list, so we can't accept more kids until we hire more staff."
It turns out, waiting lists at childcare centers due to staff shortages have become the new norm post-pandemic.
"At two of my schools, I can't take any more kids until I hire more staff," said Juanita Walker, owner and CEO of Sheyes Academy schools in Liberty City and Brownsville.
It's a problem impacting early learning centers across the state. After a year of watching student enrollment decline because of the pandemic, the vaccine is helping to bring those numbers back up, but with more kids, childcare programs are in desperate need of qualified staff to meet that need.
Children's Nest in Hillsborough County has seven locations and provides care to children between the ages of 12 months to 12 years old.
More than half of its centers are desperately searching to hire more staff.
"We're taking it one step at a time. We're using Indeed ads and we've been offering sign-on bonuses," said one of the center's directors, Shiree Gilbert.
But sign-on bonuses still aren't enough to attract the three additional teachers her center needs. It's also not enough to attract staff to an industry that has long struggled to find and keep good workers.
"I think we're all competing with everyone," said Gilbert.
Tripp Crouch owns the centers with his family and can only theorize what's causing this unprecedented staff shortage crisis.
"I think there are government benefits that are stalling people from coming back to work and the economy hasn't fully picked up yet," he said. Along with shuffling staff daily depending on center needs, the company is now using a temp agency to fill in the gaps for the first time.
Still, demand for childcare right now outweighs the staff needed to serve families. Not to mention, student to teacher ratios must be met at all times, and early childhood care teachers must meet certain standards.
"We have lots of classes and you're turning people away when there's physical space; it's weird. We'll be really glad when this is all behind us," Crouch said.
But how long this hiring crisis will last in the industry remains unknown.
The early childcare industry is vital, but tough and low wages make it tougher to attract help.
In Florida, the median income for pre-school teachers is just over $12 per hour, a few pennies above the national average.
But unlike other industries also struggling to find workers, childcare centers can't simply raise wages or rates.
Dr. Eileen Fluney owns Paradise Christian schools in Hialeah. She also serves on the board for the Early Learning Coalition of Miami. She believes it's time for the government to step in and help early childcare programs pay for workers demanding a more competitive salary. One-time cash flows from pandemic-related rescue plans aren't enough to maintain higher salaries. Without government help, Fluney fears centers will be forced to hire who they can.
"You're going to grab someone quickly and get them trained. So, it doesn't mean they're credentialed or have what's necessary; that's my personal fear," Fluney said.
"Without childcare, no one is going back to work," said Aruna Gilbert, Program Director for the Early Learning Coalition in Palm Beach County. "You have to have somewhere safe to put your children, so this has become a critical issue."
As a result, the Palm Beach County Early Learning Coalition and private partners developed a new program that helps offset the costs of training and screening new hires. Those expenses, which can total more than $500 per teacher, typically falls on centers to cover. Gilbert hopes the program, which is beginning with 25 teachers and $125,000 in funding, will help desperately-searching centers hire more staff by leaving them more money to offer more competitive wages.
"Absolutely, we think it's going to make a difference," Gilbert said.
But across the state, other counties continue to struggle as early learning centers fight just to stay open and hold onto what and who they have.
Money from the American Families Plan aims to increase minimum wages in the industry, but there remains some questions and debate over how and how it will reward those with more experience.