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North Carolina State Legislative Building

Providing additional support “for the work force behind our work force” was the central plea child care advocates made Thursday to a legislative health care working group on the COVID-19 virus.

Officials with Smart Start and other advocates express gratitude that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is providing financial assistance to help essential workers afford child care expenses.

However, they stressed more state assistance and funding is necessary that could be as much as $125 million.

Smart Start said the state’s child care industry has 47,282 hourly and salaried employees.

Donna White, Smart Start’s interim director, said most child care centers are operating at less than 60% capacity in terms of teachers and resources.

“These additional crisis mitigation efforts and state investments are needed in the short term to keep this industry from collapsing,” White said. “These small businesses, considered as essential businesses, are especially vulnerable to the cascading economic impact of this pandemic.”

Even with efforts to pair essential workers with child care centers, including several YMCA facilities in the Triad, White said the state’s emergency child care hotline is receiving between 100 and 175 calls per day seeking assistance.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, asked for specific details about how the $125 million figure was derived for assisting child care centers.

Lambeth cautioned that state resources will be limited because of the projected billions of dollars in lower sales tax revenues related to stay-at-home orders at the state and local levels.

“We’re trying to figure out how to support you,” Lambeth said. “I don’t know if I have a good feel for what your request actually is to the state.

“We just can’t take and write a check for $125 million. We (need details) on how it would be spent and monitored ... as soon as possible.”

A National Association for the Education of Young Children survey of N.C. child care providers found that 32% of centers statewide “would not survive closing for more than two weeks without public investment and support that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent and cover other fixed costs.”

About 28% of survey respondents said they don’t know if they could reopen without public investments, while 43% said they have parents who cannot currently pay their child care fees or co-pays.

Because they are struggling to access cleaning supplies, White said child care centers “are having difficulties in meeting increased health and safety requirements.”

Child care workers are concerned about lacking health insurance coverage culminating, White said, in “the worry they are running a risk in working and in returning home to their families each day.”

Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order No. 130 on Wednesday that allows the state health secretary to waive or modify regulations on child care facility requirements, activities, records, orientation, continuing education, food and attendance.

The order also allows the secretary to waive or modify — by adding additional required health or emergency elements — enforcement of any regulations on child care facility staff qualifications, health and safety training, and sanitation requirements.

White said the order was necessary given most child care centers are “absorbing even higher costs and reduced income as they follow emergency mandates and public health guidance.”

Cooper’s Executive Order No. 121 gave DHHS permission to establish an emergency child care subsidy program for essential workers. The financial assistance will be offered through May and may be extended.

During April and May, DHHS will pay child care programs staying open to serve essential workers $300 a month for each full-time teacher and $200 a month for each full-time, non-teaching staff member, including administrators, janitors and other support staff. Part-time workers are eligible for prorated bonus awards.

In addition, all child care programs will receive regular child care subsidy payments based on typical attendance for April and May. DHHS will pay all prekindergarten providers in North Carolina — regardless of location or if the program is open or closed — in full through the remainder of the program year based on their February attendance.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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@rcraverWSJ

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