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St. Albert daycare operators say affordability grant is making business unaffordable

Some daycares shut down in protest of the continued move towards $10 a day daycare in the province, including Emelia’s Child Development Centre in St. Albert

Some St. Albert daycares say that the continued rollout of the Alberta child care affordability grant, which pays daycares a lump sum of federal money that is doled out by the province in exchange for lowering costs, has left them financially stressed.

The issue led a number of Alberta daycares to close on Tuesday in protest, claiming that the province’s goal of reducing daycare to $10 a day by 2026 is “unsustainable.”

Belinda Mendonca, owner of Emelia’s Child Development Centre in Campbell Business Park, closed her daycare centre.

“I couldn't pay rent on the first of the month,” Mendonca said. “The property owner was kind enough to let me pay me by the 15th.”

Daycares in the province that signed on to receive the grant were mandated to cut fees to parents to roughly $15 a day by Jan. 1, 2024. The affordability grant was meant to make up the lost revenue. 

But Mendonca said daycares won’t receive the grant money until later in February, leaving her with unpaid bills.

Although the late payment has been frustrating for Mendonca, she said her main concern is that because daycare fees are capped for those that take the affordability grant, she feels she can’t charge a fair price for her services.

“I have parents paying fees of zero dollars,” she said. “How do I continue the quality care of my centre, if I don’t have the proper funding? … I was on a daily basis working 14 to 15 hours every day, with no vacations … I have 120 kids to keep safe.”

While Mendonca has no qualms with making daycare more affordable, including through subsidies, she said the government needs to get the balance right.

The grant system has forced her to deal with loads of extra paperwork and yearly audits at the daycare’s expense, which her business was never equipped for, she said.

“I would like to spend more time for the children, not doing admin work,” she said.

Carolyn Yake, co-owner of Little Learners Daycare in St. Albert, said that the government cap on fee increases (three per cent per year) hasn’t kept up with inflation.

“Our payroll costs are very high to have quality educators, who already barely make minimum wage, even with top-ups from the government,” she said.

She said that it’s been frustrating to see a business sector that is run mostly by women entrepreneurs suddenly reap most of its money from the government, especially when the government has oversight on how the funds can be spent.

“It's just taken all of our hard work and then basically saying, ‘okay, well now you work for us,” Yake said. 

Since the implementation of the affordability grant, “daycare owners sometimes have to sacrifice our own wages temporarily when there’s a shortfall,” she said.

“We're not trying to raise our fees to gouge parents,” she said. “I've been running daycares myself for eight and a half years. I have never once made a profit. I make a wage. That's it. All of the money gets spent on our staffing, on our quality, on our food. And it sometimes it feels like we're vilified because we're called for-profit operators. But there's no profit in this business. That's not why we do it.”

A ”game changer” for parents

For parents like Lindsey Zunti, the childcare affordability grant program is a game changer.

Zunti has three children under four years old, all of whom attend daycare in St. Albert.

Without the grant, she estimates that child care could have cost her $4,000 a month, but now she pays roughly one-third that amount.

“Me returning to work would have been a much more challenging conversation for our family,” Zunti said.

Had she taken more time off work, Zunti fears her career may have experienced setbacks and she could have lost some professional designations.

“All of a sudden, people can go back to the workforce,” she said. “They can maybe start over in their career. All of those things that used to be a hindrance kind of go away. And that's huge. That's huge for moms.”

Province requesting meeting with the feds

In an email, Minister of Children and Family Services Searle Turton said that child care operators have his full support.

“I recognize the difficult situation they are in,” he said. “The Premier will be requesting a meeting with the federal minister to discuss this further and to urge the federal government to consider changes to the framework that would support operators facing inflationary pressures.”

While the federal government provided the affordability grant money, provinces were responsible for implementing their own payment schemes.  

Daycares had until Jan. 31 to sign on to the agreement or lose access to the affordability grant money.

About the Author: Riley Tjosvold

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