Help for Washington families with kids in child care expanded earlier this month, but local child care providers said many people still do not know about the changes and only some have seen the effects.

The first change was a cap on the amount parents who receive subsidized child care owe in monthly copayments. As of Oct. 1, parents will pay no more than 7% of their monthly income in child care copays. Before the change, families could owe as much as 20% of their monthly income, according to a news release from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

"That really was a barrier for some families who may have been otherwise eligible and accessing care," said Nicole Rose, assistant secretary of early learning at the department.

The second change expanded the amount of families eligible for subsidized child care. Now, families who earn up to 60% of the state's median income will qualify for assistance. Previously, eligibility was determined using federal poverty guidelines, according to the release.

These changes were made possible by the Fair Start for Kids Act, a piece of legislation aimed at improving child care accessibility and affordability which Gov. Jay Inslee approved in May.

The department estimates 6,000 families will be impacted by these changes.

Local impact

Lorena Miranda, owner of Nani's Child Care in Yakima, said that the caps on copays have already made a difference at her business.

Miranda said she has had families in the past that paid over $500 in monthly copays, which they compared to a car payment or nearly half of rent.

She said that recently a family told her they could not afford to pay their high copays this month. They were unaware of the recent changes.

"I was going to lose some of my kids, but when they found out, they stayed because of that," she said. "So, it is helping a lot."

But, she said, not enough families know about the changes and the help they might now be eligible for.

Child care provider Nathalia Medina operates an at-home child care facility in Union Gap called El Carrusel and a larger daycare center in Yakima called 1-2-3 Bambinos. Like Miranda, she said many of her parents were not aware of the changes.

She said that two parents she works with believed they did not qualify for assistance, even after she told them about the changes.

"So, I don't see any change," she said.

Nicole Rose from the DCYF said that the department uses social media and blogs to communicate with families. The department also partners with local organizations and advocacy groups to further its reach.

"It's something I would say that we are really working on thoughtfully with some of our partners," she said.

The department also has a page on its website with resources for families who need help with child care.

Rose said that the change in eligibility based on family income is likely to make a bigger impact in counties with lower-than-average incomes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income was $51,637 in Yakima County and $73,775 statewide in 2019.

Miranda said that once more families become aware of the changes, she suspects more families will look for licensed providers in the area, which faces a shortage of child care providers. According to the DCFY website, several zip codes in Yakima County are considered extreme child care deserts, meaning the supply of child care slots is limited.

Help for providers

Child care providers in Washington are also awaiting the release of stabilization grants this fall from the DCYF. There is no official date the grant application will open, but Rose said it will hopefully be available next week.

The department estimates the grants will range between $750 up to $90,000 based on a provider's size and nature. Providers who work in certain communities, like child care deserts and or low-income areas, can earn additional grant money, Rose said at a recent presentation on the grants. Providers can check grant information for their location online.

Once the grants become available, the department will consider applications on a monthly basis and qualifying providers will receive a lump-sum payment.

Interest in the grants is high. A recent English-language webinar with more information on the grants had nearly 800 participants, with more trying to gain access.

Miranda, who also works a union representative with the state's in-home child care providers union, SEIU Local 925, said that she's spoken with local providers about the pending grants.

"I think everybody's going to apply. Everybody," she said.

The grants are noncompetitive, meaning any eligible provider who applies should receive funds.

Miranda said that many of the providers she's spoken with are counting on the grants to help pay bills and compensate staff.

Providers have to use a certain amount of the grant money on workforce costs, including wage increases and recruitment and retention activities, Rose said. The remaining money can be used on a variety of costs incurred since January 2021, including rent, food, internet access, sanitation and other operating costs.

"These grants really are a response directly to the pandemic and to all of the federal funding that came out as a result of the federal and state emergency," Rose said.

In many ways, local providers are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Medina opened her larger child care center in Yakima just days before the pandemic struck. She then had to temporarily close it. Now she hopes to use grant money to help pay the center's rent.

Miranda took out a loan during the pandemic, as she had many parents keep their kids home. Enrollment has since bounced back, but she said the grant would help a lot.

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