Skip to content

Future of home childcare program uncertain as city ends involvement

City of Thunder Bay says it struggled to find enough licensed home childcare providers for the program, faced funding reduction.

THUNDER BAY – The future of a publicly-funded home childcare program is in doubt after the City of Thunder Bay moved to end its involvement, blaming recruiting challenges.

On Monday, city council unanimously approved a staff recommendation to terminate an agreement with the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB) to deliver the Licensed Private Home Child Care program.

Some of the city’s home childcare budget will be redirected to a half-time relief position supporting its four licensed childcare centres: Ogden, Woodcrest, Algoma, and Grace Remus.

The move means the city will now “focus on the core business of group childcare,” said general manager of community services Kelly Robertson.

Still, with the loss of the home childcare program funding, the result is that the city will spend more money to deliver fewer childcare spaces than before the pandemic.

Robertson called that an unfortunate reality of rebuilding services amid the continuing disruptions of COVID-19.

City childcare centres are operating at only around 54 per cent capacity, which the city attributes largely to staffing challenges including COVID-related sick calls and isolation requirements.

The DSSAB had been preparing to lower the amount of funding provided to the city under the home childcare agreement, since the program has consistently operated well below capacity.

There are currently 25 children enrolled with four home childcare providers, far below the program cap of 125 children and 25 providers.

COVID-19 has depressed those numbers, but Robertson said the challenges pre-date the pandemic and reflect broader recruitment challenges in the childcare sector.

Over the last five years, the city has had an average of 10 registered providers. The number has declined steadily from a high of 28 in the early 2000s, Robertson said.

In feedback collected by the city, providers and families registered in the program said it provided badly-needed childcare spaces and flexibility parents wouldn’t find elsewhere, with some home providers accommodating overnight care and infants under 18 months.

Some were critical of the city’s management and promotion of the program, though they said the association with the city, which hired a home childcare worker and oversaw inspections, helped build trust in the service.

“Pay is a concern but more than that, we rely on [the] city to promote this great program,” one provider wrote. “I had to find my own families and they were already on the waitlist.”

“The only challenge that I currently have is the current lack of support to help, place children, deliver needed forms, and promote this program,” wrote another. “[The program] could flourish under proper management.”

Some clients of the program said its cancellation would take the home childcare option away from those relying on childcare subsidies, and endanger the ability of women to re-enter the workforce.

“It’s hard enough to find licensed child care in the city and wait lists are very long,” one wrote. “Lots of families need the subsidy option and if the city were to drop the program, it’s not guaranteed another organization will take it on. This will cause those families who need subsidy to leave care since they can’t afford full fee.”

The city’s decision didn’t reflect on the value of the program, but the ability to deliver it, city administration emphasized.

“There’s evidence to suggest the families who do partake in this program really value it, and they have lots of praise for the providers and the quality of care they receive,” Robertson said.

The city will terminate the agreement on July 1, honouring a DSSAB request to provide six months’ notice.

TBDSSAB CAO Bill Bradica suggested the agency will consider launching an expression of interest process to find a new licensed provider.

“Of course, it would mean less spaces available” if the program didn’t continue, he said. “However, it’s a relatively small program now, so the reduction to the overall system would be relatively small.”

The DSSAB typically funds around 1,600 childcare spaces at 45 childcare centres across the Thunder Bay District, though COVID has lowered those numbers.

The agency has advised the city for several years that it would re-evaluate program funding levels, Bradica said.

The city reported it typically received between $100,000 and $125,000 more than it spent on the program, helping to subsidize childcare centre operations. The loss of that funding will mean the city needs to budget about $100,000 more for childcare beginning in 2023.

“The funding the city has been receiving for the program from the DSSAB is arguably higher than what the city should have been receiving,” said Robertson.

As the DSSAB looked to ramp that down, the city estimated delivering the program would start costing the city up to $120,000 a year more than it received in funding.

Still, Robertson expressed her hope another organization would step in to run it, something she said has happened in other Ontario communities (in at least one case, the local DSSAB itself operates the program, she noted).

The city will divert most of the money it currently spends on a child homecare worker (a position that's currently vacant) to hire a half-time early childhood educator to cover staffing gaps across its centres, a growing issue.

In October and November, the city reported childcare staff couldn’t report to work for 147 shifts for various reasons, an average of 36.75 shifts per centre. The city was unable to fill one third of those missed shifts through its existing pool of casual supply staff.

That required it to take steps like deploying a supervisor and a cook to provide care, incurring overtime, and redeploying staff between centres.

“It’s a constant staffing and recruitment challenge,” said Robertson. “We just get a supply pool built up and then we lose people.”

Bradica said childcare centres face competition for ECEs from school boards, as well as a general shortage of available staff he said had been worsening over about a decade.

“What we’ve heard is also that some staff have left the industry during COVID, so that’s exacerbated the issue,” he said.

The DSSAB has advocated for the province to increase wages to address the issue, Bradica said. The agency has requested a meeting with Minister Lecce during the upcoming Rural Ontario Municipal Association meeting later this month over worker shortages.

The need for action is highlighted by the possibility Ontario will join other provinces in signing on to the new federal $10-a-day childcare program, Bradica said.

 “Should that happen, and the childcare fees for people generally get reduced to $10 a day… that’s going to create, we think, more demand for licensed childcare,” he said. “So we’re really going to have to further address the staffing gap that exists – we think it’s going to expand even further.”

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

Read more


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks