Governor ‘hopeful’ special session brings workforce, child care relief

Evers stops in Rhinelander, tours YMCA

By Eileen Persike

MMC Staff

RHINELANDER – Referencing Wisconsin’s $4 billion state surplus, Governor Tony Evers is calling the Wisconsin Legislature back for a special session next month to address what he said are “chronic workforce issues” left off the 2023-25 biennial budget.

He is proposing a $1 billion package that would include creating a paid family and medical leave program, investing in higher education and strengthening workforce sectors including healthcare and education. But at the top of the list, Evers said, is investing $350 million to support child care workers and families with small children.

Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Amy Pechacek and Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Emilie Amundson joined Evers last week as he toured the YMCA of the Northwoods in Rhinelander to learn about the Y’s summer day camp.

“It is exceedingly important that we do this, yes, it’s the right thing to do – these people and others across the state area able to tell you how important it is to have our smallest kids learning the right things,” Evers said. “All sorts of good educational reasons to do it, but if you are thinking of it from a workforce point of view, it is all about, if we want people in the workforce, we’re going to have to provide the best resources to have their kids taken care of while they’re working.”

Over $330 million has been awarded since May 2020 to Wisconsin child care providers through the Child Care Counts program with federal COVID relief funding. That funding is set to expire in January. The Governor said if assistance is not continued, child care facilities will have to close their doors or raise rates.

“We can’t afford to lose workers,” added DWD Secretary Pechacek. “Demographic trends have been in the making for decades; low birth rates for generations, baby boomers retiring, net-zero or negative in-migration to the state of Wisconsin. All of that means there are more available jobs in Wisconsin than there are actual workers to fill them. Without providing the support behind the workforce, we will be hampering the record breaking momentum we’ve had and our economic recovery under Governor Evers’ leadership.”

YMCA of the Northwoods CEO Linda May said receiving financial support is paramount. The Child Care Counts funding has allowed the Y to increase staff salaries and offer a full benefit package to child care workers.

“We’ve been able to keep increases at bay and we’ve been able to offer our staff full benefits because of that support,” May said. “Now when that departs in January, we are saying to our parents, you have to pick up the full burden. They’re already experiencing 20-30% of their income on child care, which is unconscionable.”

From left, DWD Secretary Amy Pechacek, Governor Tony Evers, and far right, DCF Secreatary Emilie Amundson listen as YMCA school age childcare director Abbie Cline talks about the Y’s summer day camp program.

Y ‘high quality program’

After the tour, DCF Secretary Amundson said what she saw was a “really high quality program” staffed with trained educators who provide high quality care.

“Child Care Counts has helped to create an environment where these educators can be paid the kind of wage that will keep them here at the center,” Amundson said. “If that or a program like it goes away, those fees have to go somewhere. They get passed down to parents or the child care center has to make difficult decisions about closing classrooms, extending those waiting lists or frankly, closing their doors altogether. That’s what we’re trying to avoid with this special session.”

It has been reported that Republicans who control the legislature are not interested in taking any action during Evers’ special session. Still, Evers said he has hope because it is “all about the workforce.”

“A lot of this is politics, but I do know that Republicans do care about having a good available workforce,” said Evers. “And this will be something that, if we don’t do it right, we will have fewer people and our economy will suffer. Frankly, we’re giving them the chance to come to the plate and take a whack at this. Democrats are on board on this, (Republicans) used to be on board with this. If we fail this time around, it’s on them. A lot of people, who are ‘them’ I am talking to now.”

One of the day campers at the Y talks with Governor Tony Evers lduring his visit to the facility last week. MMC photos.

Looking at the numbers

In Oneida County, May said there is an 800-child gap for child care and after school care is even more of a rarity. As the nation’s largest provider of child care in the country, May said the Y is being asked to do more.

“I will tell you that I am approached by rural communities, since I’ve been here, and they are looking for the Y to come in and open child care centers and support the gap,” May said.

The website defines a child care desert as any census tract with more than 50 children under age five that contains either no child care providers, or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.

The DCF website shows there are currently 13 licensed child care centers in Oneida County, with a total capacity of 663 children – including 120 summer slots for the Y’s day camp. Three of those facilities are in the Lakeland area, and one is in Three Lakes; the other nine are in Rhinelander.

According to a report from the Century Foundation, without continued financial support, 2,110 child care programs in the state are projected to close, resulting in more than 87,000 children without child care in the state and the loss of over 4,880 child care jobs. Further, the report indicates the lack of access to child care could impact Wisconsin’s economy by half a billion dollars in lost revenue.

“(The Republican majority in the legislature) have supported child care support in the past; maybe not at this level, but they have, so they get it,” Evers concluded. “It’s just a matter of whether they have the will to do it. And if they don’t have the will to do it and there are ramifications, it’s on them.”

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