Growing With Wonder in Essex Junction
The payments — $1,000 for full-time employees and $500 for part-timers — are part of a $7 million package approved by the Vermont legislature last spring to help providers retain their workers; the pandemic has exacerbated dire staff shortages. Irwin knew her five full-time teachers were banking on the bonuses to pay for critical expenses like car repairs and medical care.
But after reading the fine print of the 26-page application, Irwin came out of her office in tears. As it turned out, the Child Development Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families — the state agency handling the bonus program — is requiring childcare providers to pay bonuses to staff members out of their own funds and then wait to get reimbursed by the state.
"It really felt like a slap in the face," Irwin said.
That's because Growing With Wonder, like most childcare centers, operates on a razor-thin profit margin with little money budgeted for unanticipated expenses. The state hadn't told providers they would have to front the money.
This system has erected a barrier to accessing the funds that have already been allocated in Vermont's budget, said Dominique Collins, a veteran early childhood educator who teaches at Growing With Wonder. "If our small center can't front the bonus amount for our small number of staff members, I'm sure larger programs are having a similar problem," she said.
echler, director of Ascension Childcare in Shelburne, confirmed that. Ascension has 11 full-time and four part-time employees who are eligible for the bonuses, which means Buechler will have to pay $13,000 in bonuses — plus another several thousand dollars in payroll taxes, before getting any of the state money. Furthermore, she said, auxiliary staff who are critical to the operation of childcare centers such as office managers and cooks don't qualify for the funds.
Buechler said she's planning to apply for the bonuses, but won't distribute the money to employees until November due to budgetary constraints. The state is providing childcare centers with the option of paying staff in smaller installments over a longer period of time, she said, but she believes her staff would benefit more from the lump-sum option.
A 2020 incentive program made accessing the money simpler and more straightforward, Buechler said. Centers simply reported how many full- and part-time workers they had and the state gave them the funds to distribute.
Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Child Development Division of DCF, wrote in an email that it's customary for her agency to use the reimbursement model for grant programs such as this one. Participating programs can expect reimbursement later this month or in November, she said. Gray did not respond to a question about what options providers have if they lack the money to front the bonuses.
That's the dilemma that Growing With Wonder director Irwin is grappling with. She's contemplated giving one educator per month the $1,000 bonus to spread out her out-of-pocket costs. But she's not even sure that she can afford that.
Meanwhile, teachers "are feeling really hoodwinked," Irwin said. "They understand that right now I don’t really know what to do, and they don’t want me to put the business in a precarious place … but they also desperately need these funds."
Collins said that the reimbursement model feels insulting to her.
"Requiring already struggling businesses to pay bonuses to their staff upfront only to struggle while they wait to be reimbursed is kicking these business owners while they're already down," she said. "Unfortunately for many, this could be the final straw to force centers to close when we already have such a shortage of childcare spaces in our state."