Courtesy of CSEA SEIU Local  2001
Queen Freelove, a child care provider in New Haven (Courtesy of CSEA SEIU Local 2001)

Child care workers across the state feel like they’re part of the federal government shutdown because they also haven’t been receiving pay for services they’re providing.

That’s because many childcare providers participating in Care4Kids, the child care subsidy program for low-income families, aren’t being paid or have had their payments delayed as the state switches to a new $10 million software system.

Trying to get answers about what’s happening or when they can expect to receive payment has been frustrating.

“I was on hold for 71 minutes before I had to hang up,” said Cynthia Ciarcia, who runs a child care center out of her Bridgeport home.

She said she is providing services to one child in the program who has been in her care since she was an infant, but she hasn’t been paid for months.

“I’m paying my mortgage late this month,” Ciarcia said this week in a telephone interview.

She said she currently has openings at her childcare, but she doesn’t know what to tell parents if they tell her they are on Care4Kids.

She also has no guarantee that the child she’s caring for now will continue to receive the subsidy.

“Will I get paid?” she wondered.

How it works is this — parents or providers can apply for funds from Care4Kids to pay for childcare for low income families. For a family of four with two children, eligibility is limited to households with incomes of $56,000 or less.

Often a parent applies and a provider will receive a certificate for the child’s care. The new system is supposed to eliminate paperwork and offer direct deposits to providers, and improve efficiency. To be eligible for the program, both the parents and providers are required to undergo training in safe child care procedures.

But the transition to the new system is taking too long for many providers.

Queen Freelove, head of the childcare providers association and a child care provider in New Haven, said she received payments very late for a few of the kids in her care and has seen payments split up for other kids.

She said she did receive payment for some of the children last week, but is still waiting to hear about funds related to others.

But Freelove stressed that it’s not just her. It’s happening to providers across the state and it’s impacting providers who have more than one child enrolled in the program. That means providers are having to make some financial sacrifices.

“Last week I loaned another provider a few dollars to pay her electric bill,” Freelove said.

Ben Phillips, communications director for CSEA SEIU Local 2001, the union that represents the childcare providers, said that at this point he is wondering what is being expected of childcare providers.

“In order to continue providing care to the families who depend on them, these providers are having to make significant personal sacrifices while they wait to see if they will get paid,” Phillips said. “Options like extending the no-interest loans for Connecticut federal employees to these workers would allow them to continue caring for children while the new administration gets itself in order.”

Phillips was referring to Gov. Ned Lamont’s announcement earlier this week that the state would be backing no-interest loans from Webster Bank for federal workers to help them survive the shutdown.

Phillips suggested that the governor should consider extending the offer to these child care providers until the state can get its eligibility system running properly.

“What else are they going to do?” he wondered. “Tell the parents they can’t bring their children to them?”

He said the program is a “critical piece” of the infrastructure supporting working families.

And the state has seen the consequences of what can happen when the program isn’t available, and children are left in unregulated, illegally operated daycare settings.

The Office of the Child Advocate found that between March 2016 and November 2017 that nine infants and toddlers died in home daycare. Six of the nine died in unregulated, illegally operated child care. That’s more deaths than occurred in the previous five years combined, from 2010 to 2015, when only five children died in child care settings.

Courtesy of the OCA report

In the fatality report, Child Advocate Sarah Eagan noted that “low-income families’ access to child care subsidies through the state’s Care4Kids program was sharply diminished between July 2016 and December 2017. At that time access to Care4Kids for new babies was eliminated for most families (unless otherwise enrolled in the program with a sibling).”

The Office of Early Childhood, which manages the Care4Kids program, is well aware of the issues and trying its best to resolve the problem.

Part of what created delays for older children in the program was the decision by outgoing Commissioner David Wilkinson to prioritize infants over all other children in the program because the report indicated infants under 12 months old are most at risk of death. It meant more than 500 applications for infants born in 2018 were processed first.

“Our hardworking providers should not have to face this hardship and inconvenience,” an Office of Early Childhood spokeswoman said.

Officials at the agency said new applications increased 20 percent at the same time thousands of reauthorizations came due, all while they were still trying to train eligibility workers on the new computer system.

“They really inherited the perfect storm,” said Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance.

That being said “it doesn’t change frustration of providers, especially home day care providers,” Gay added.

According to Maggie Adair, spokesperson for the Office of Early Childhood, the Care4Kids program has has seen record-level demand at a time of decreased staff capacity.

“We are taking every action within the agency’s authority to respond, reducing the number of providers impacted,” Adair said. “But this does not make life any easier for those who are waiting. We’re working as quickly as possible to correct this problem and doing everything within our power to prevent this from happening again.”

While the impasse is not related to the federal government shutdown at all, there was pressure from the federal government to switch to the new computer system before the end of the year. If the system was not in place, Connecticut would lose $10 million from the federal government to complete the transition from a 25-year-old computer to the new one. The switch was necessary to comply with federal reporting requirements and would have had to come from state resources if the deadline was missed.

The new system is expected to reduce the paperwork and make it easier for parents and providers to apply or reapply online.

Freelove said she knows change is hard and that the new system will be better when all the kinks are worked out, but that doesn’t make it any easier for providers struggling to get through this period of uncertainty.

She said that every time she calls to check on applications for the kids, she gets a different response.

“It has to get better,” Freelove said.

The agency is hoping that it will get better and expect to have the problems worked out by March, which is probably no consolation to providers who have not been paid since November and have no guarantees that they will get paid.

Lamont nominee Beth Bye takes over the agency next week.