Lawmakers hear needs of child care expansion in West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — State health officials are looking at private-public partnerships to help expand child care services across West Virginia.

During interim committee meetings in Morgantown Monday, state lawmakers heard about efforts to work with businesses like Nucor Steel as the company prepares to build a multi-billion dollar facility in Mason County and employ up to 800 people.

Lisa Ertl, director of the state DHHR’s Division of Early Child Care Education, gave a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health.

“Right now DHHR, WorkForce West Virginia, the Small Business Development Corporation is working with Nucor that is coming in to help them determine what’s available in West Virginia, how child care can be supported by Nucor and how Nucor can support child care,” Ertl said.

The agency is working with businesses to help increase awareness of the child care issue that Ertl said has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that will help expand if we can get more businesses in West Virginia to understand and appreciate. I think they saw that during the pandemic — the impact that the lack of child care has on their workforce,” she said.

Janie Cole, interim commissioner of the state DHHR’s Bureau for Family Assistance, told lawmakers child care is coupled with increased workforce participation. As more businesses move into the West Virginia, the need for workers increases and so does the need for access to child care.

“There’s a workforce issue with parents not being able to go to work because we don’t have enough child care,” Cole said. “Parents need child care to work and go to school, but they need safe, stable child care so that they don’t lose productivity at worrying about their children and where they are.”

Cole said it’s difficult to retain child care employees when they barely get paid a living wage.

“Most of them are earning poverty level wages. For the most part, child care providers get paid minimum wage. Almost never do you see them receiving benefits. They don’t receive health care, yet they’re exposed to illnesses on a regular basis because you’re down on the floor with children,” she said.

Committee member Del. Larry Pack (R-Kanawha, 35) asked Ertl how the legislature can help increase child care services.

“Do you believe West Virginians don’t have adequate access to child care?” Pack asked.

“I agree that there needs to be more capacity,” Ertl replied.

Ertl said when opening new child care services, it’s important to consider the areas of West Virginia that are more heavily populated.

“We have to look at demographics and the need for a child care provider to remain financially viable. They can open their doors, but if they’re only caring for one child, they won’t be able to keep those doors open,” Ertl said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha, 37) expressed concern over American Rescue Plan funding once the state has exhausted that money.

“At some point, when that expires, how reliant are we going to be on a new reconciliation package?” Pushkin asked DHHR officials.

“Very,” they replied.

There are about 1,300 child care providers across the state.

Interim meetings are set to continue Tuesday.

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