Holland Cole, 3, molds Play-Doh at Cubby's Child Care Center in Bridgeport. Photo by Dan Lawton

It’s already hard to find child care in West Virginia: data shows there are more than 26,000 kids under six across the state who need but can’t access care. But changes on the horizon mean the situation could soon become even more challenging, especially for low-income families.

The state is set to modify how child care providers are paid, a shift that stems from the drying up of hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic-era benefits that have kept the child care industry afloat for the last few years. Providers say the change could force them to stop accepting low-income kids, or even close completely.

“You’re going to see one-third of child care centers closing when this happens,“ said Jennifer Trippett, who operates Cubby’s Child Care Center in Bridgeport. She and other providers were urging the Legislature to fund a permanent shift in the way the state pays for child care: continuing the current model that reimburses based on enrollment instead of attendance. But multiple bills intended to do so died, leaving industry advocates worried that a financial fallout is inevitable and will ultimately lead to workers who can’t find affordable child care leaving the workforce.

“It’s just really frustrating that we got nothing that we asked for when child care is the one business that allows all other businesses to operate,” Trippett said. 

A minor rule makes a major difference

During the pandemic, federal money made it possible for West Virginia to offer subsidies to providers based on the number of kids enrolled in their programs, instead of the number that actually showed up every day. This provided some stability for an industry that was deemed essential, and allowed child care providers to count on monthly revenue.

But now the switch means providers will have to plan monthly costs — everything from paying staff, buying supplies and making rent — without knowing for sure whether they can count on getting the monthly subsidies. Their businesses could all be at jeopardy depending on how often certain children are absent.

Holland Cole (left) plays with Play-Doh while her teacher, Hannah Wade, helps fellow student Ayda James select a shape to use. The kids attend Cubby’s Child Care Center in Bridgeport. Photo by Dan Lawton

Trippett said that switching back to the attendance-based model could cause providers like her to lose up to a third of their income since it’s common for children enrolled in child care to be frequently absent. It will also increase the gap between families who can afford to pay full tuition and those getting government subsidies, making it increasingly difficult for child care centers to afford to serve all kids.

“Right now, I have a waiting list of over 200, so I would have to choose to take fee-paying parents over families to stay open,” Trippett said. Her center currently services about 400 kids, nearly half of whom are on subsidies and could lose child care.

While Emily Hopta, spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Resources, confirmed that the switch to an attendance model will likely take place this year, she said there is no specific date for when the change will happen. In December, 11,881 children in West Virginia received federal child care subsidies.

Melissa Colagrosso, director of A Place to Grow in Fayette County, said the uncertainty makes it hard for small businesses like hers to plan. She says it will be a death knell for her business when the change occurs.

“The consequence is that we are going to close,” said Colagrosso, who runs a mid-sized center with around 60% of kids on subsidies. 

Other child care providers say while they intend to continue admitting young children on subsidies, they will no longer be able to provide before or after-school care to older kids, who often only need care for one or two hours a day.  

“I have three school children, and I’m not going to be able to hold spots for them,” said Nicole Earp, a child care provider in Kearneysville. Earp said that under the attendance model, she can only afford to enroll children who will be attending full-time.

And providers like Earp are bracing for more than just an imminent switch in reimbursement. They have also been receiving monthly stabilization payments from the American Rescue Plan, which will expire in September. Providers said those extra funds, ranging from $750 to $27,000, have been indispensable in offsetting wage inflation. 

“It costs a lot to keep an employee because you can go to McDonald’s and make $15 an hour,” Earp said.

No help from the Legislature 

During the early stages of the 2023 legislative session, child care providers were optimistic about legislation to fund a permanent shift to the state paying providers based on enrollment instead of attendance.

Three bills were proposed that would do so, including one by Sen. Laura Chapman, R- Ohio. Chapman said she believes that the state should fund child care as an economic development investment.

“We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on incentive packages for business to come in, and to me, child care, roads and other underlying infrastructure needs to be addressed,” Chapman said.

According to DHHR, the price tag for continuing with the enrollment-based reimbursement model is estimated at nearly $23 million per year.

Chapman’s bill failed to make it on to the agenda for the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources. Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, who chairs the committee, did not respond to a request for comment. Two bills in the House, with the same purpose, also fared little better. 

Chapman said she intends to re-introduce the bill on the first day of the 2024 session. However, she worries that in the meantime, if child care providers stop taking subsidies, it could mean people will drop out of the labor market.

“This will penalize both the lower class and the middle class who need to work,” she said.

House spokesperson Ann Ali had said in October that Speaker Roger Hanshaw had “heard in a few different communities that child care challenges lead to a lot of hiring challenges” and that she expected there to be efforts during the legislative session to improve child care options.

“This is one of several issues the full Legislature could not resolve during the most recent regular legislative session, but that does not mean there is no intent or will to do so at a later time,” Ali said. She added that two bills passed by the House – one a supplemental appropriations bill and the other a regulatory rule – might improve access to child care. 

Hopta, the DHHR spokesperson, said that the appropriations bill provided no additional funding for child care subsidies.

Kristy Ritz, executive director of the West Virginia Association for Young Children, said child care providers called and sent letters to legislators, but lacked the firepower of a paid lobbyist with experience navigating the halls of power in Charleston.

Ritz said that about 50 child care providers showed up at the Capitol on Valentine’s Day, the first time the group gathered in mass. There are also plans for a daylong work stoppage on May 8, in order to demonstrate the importance of child care.

Regardless, she’s worried that the shift back to an attendance model could mean the demise of many of the state’s child care providers.

“I really think we are going to see a huge cliff and providers are just not going to be able to stay open,” she said.

Dan Lawton is the economic justice reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He previously worked as a reporter in Northern California and New Orleans, covering criminal justice, government and high-profile...