× UK PoliticsWorld PoliticsVideosPrivacy PolicyTerms And Conditions
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

I own a daycare, and the government’s $10-a-day plan is threatening my business

A woman holding a mug and standing in front of wooden children's cubbies with coats hanging in them

Sarah Hunter’s daycare, the Imagination Tree, is struggling under the federal $10-a-day childcare program. (Photography by Leah Hennel)

My mother started Riverbend Daycare in Calgary in 1987, and I started working there soon after it opened. I was 18, and I quickly learned that childcare isn’t a typical nine-to-five job: you become part of families’ lives. Over the years, I got to know their stories, shared in their hardships and celebrated their milestones. Occasionally, my mother and I even opened our homes to host children when their parents had family emergencies, and we offered advice and companionship to other families. 

In early 2021, my mother, who was in her 70s, stepped back from the business and handed the reins to me. But since our lease was up, and the landlord didn’t offer a renewal, we had to close Riverbend down. By then, I’d been working in daycare for 33 years, and it wasn’t just a business for me. It was a way of life. So, even though many parents were keeping their children at home in those early pandemic days, I invested approximately $500,000—a combination of my life savings, support from my mother and a couple of loans—to open a new daycare near where Riverbend had been. I called it the Imagination Tree.

Get our top stories sent directly to your inbox twice a week

I designed the Imagination Tree to provide play-based services, including a music program and an emotional agility coach, as well as a full menu of healthy food for the children. Depending on the child’s age, my fees ranged from $575 to $1,200 per month—which shakes out to roughly $29 to $60 a day. The day I opened my doors in June of 2021, I was excited and proud, but I was also nervous. Taking care of children is a sobering responsibility and, for the first time, that burden fell directly on me. 

I couldn’t anticipate the challenges that lay ahead. In November of 2021, Alberta and the federal government reached a $3.8-billion agreement aimed at reducing daycare costs for parents to an average of $10 a day by 2026. Under the agreement, families would receive expanded childcare subsidies depending on their income. And daycare operators were required to lower their fees by 50 per cent in 2022, with the plan of reaching $15 a day per child by the 2023–2024 school year. To ensure viability, the government promised to provide operators with recurring grants that would help cover overhead and staffing expenses. Operators would receive set amounts of funding per child, depending on the child’s age and the type of care they would receive. For example, we’d receive up to $626 a month per child for full-time care of a preschool-aged child. 

I supported making daycare more affordable, but this new system posed challenges for operators. After we lowered our fees, the province was taking 40 to 45 days to reimburse us with the promised grants. As we waited, we were forced to carry sizeable debts and interest. At one point, I was regularly floating nearly $100,000 of monthly debt for bills like rent, payroll and insurance, as well as expenses for food and equipment. Instead of spending time with children—which is my favourite part of the job—I was holed up in my office for hours on end, scrambling to balance the books as I waited for government funding to arrive. 

The issues didn’t stop there. Like most businesses, daycare operators have struggled with skyrocketing inflation since the pandemic began. The province gives operators some additional funding to compensate for this, but it’s not nearly enough. Last year, my costs for things like rent and insurance shot up by 18 per cent, but I only got funding equivalent to a three per cent increase. This year, the province raised funding to cover six per cent inflation, which still isn’t adequate. I’m left with a huge disparity between what I’m receiving from the government and what it actually costs to run my centre.

MORE: I couldn’t afford to stay home from work—and finding childcare for my son in B.C. was a nightmare

Although the government’s promise of affordable, quality childcare for $10 a day sounds appealing, it’s not realistic. The $30 billion pledged by the federal government simply isn’t enough for the entire country. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to get a doughnut and coffee for $10, but for that same price, daycare operators are expected to provide a quality program to educate and care for your child. What does $10-a-day childcare look like, realistically? Sacrifices loom large, whether that involves cutting food, art, or music programs, or mass layoffs of educators—which means fewer and fewer people caring for more and more kids.

I haven’t yet been forced to cut any programs, but I am handcuffed by the constraints of the agreement, which is heartbreaking. At my mother’s daycare, we always prided ourselves on being inclusive, but I regularly have to turn away children with special needs because I can’t afford the additional staffing costs they require. I work 13-hour days and haven’t paid myself a salary since I opened the daycare three years ago. It’s been exhausting and stressful. If I didn’t love the families and children, I would have shut up shop long ago and started another type of business. 

I couldn’t have kept the daycare going without my family’s support. My mother is now 77, but she still helps out by coming in every day and doing all the cooking for the 96 children we serve. My two adult sons work for me full-time, helping with things like grocery shopping and transportation for the children. At the end of each day, they clean the centre to save on janitorial costs. Some of the children I took care of back in the 1990s and early 2000s have even started bringing their own children to the Imagination Tree. I treasure being a continuous presence in these families’ lives, but I can’t sustain myself on passion alone.

Right now, the Imagination Tree has a waitlist of 100 families, and many other Alberta daycares have lengthy waitlists too—the demand is so high that, under normal circumstances, I would have opened a second centre. But with this agreement, no one is opening new centres. It makes no financial sense to invest in a business that won’t give you a return on your investment. The resulting lack of supply to meet growing demand will inevitably make childcare less affordable, which is the complete opposite of the government’s goal. In the end, families and children indirectly pay the price of the $10-a-day promise—one that doesn’t mean much to families if they’re stuck on waitlists for years.

I’m a member of the Association of Alberta Childcare Entrepreneurs, and we’re lobbying the government to overhaul its agreement. We need a funding model where families receive the grants directly, so that operators can charge appropriate fees that cover our expenses. That approach would promote healthy competition, as well as eliminate administrative burdens and reimbursement wait times for operators. It would also give families the freedom to select childcare that fits their preferences and budgets.

In the meantime, we’ve already seen positive results from collective action. In January, I participated in a series of rolling daycare closures to put pressure on the government. They’re finally listening to us. As of March 1, they’ve promised to provide us with approximately 80 per cent of our grant funding at the beginning of each month, which means we no longer have to wait upward of six weeks for most of our reimbursements. That gives me breathing space to pay the most urgent bills. But while this is a step in the right direction, it does not address the broader issue of inadequate funding. At the very least, the next thing we need is the ability to increase our fees to match inflation.

I’m constantly stressed that my family legacy, which I’ve helped build for over three decades, is in jeopardy. I’ve invested all my life savings into my centre. I’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into it. And yet that may not keep it going long enough for me to pass down to my sons. The short-term future is equally bleak for many operators in similar positions. 

But this isn’t just about daycare operators. It’s about all of us. Childcare helps shape the future—our governments’ $10-a-day promise should not be achieved at the cost of a nurturing and enriching environment for millions of children. That’s why I implore the province to recognize the challenges operators are facing and work with us towards a sustainable agreement. The fate of childcare in Alberta hangs in the balance. 

—As told to Ali Amad

The post I own a daycare, and the government’s $10-a-day plan is threatening my business appeared first on Macleans.ca.


By: Sarah Hunter
Title: I own a daycare, and the government’s $10-a-day plan is threatening my business
Sourced From: macleans.ca/politics/affordable-daycare-alberta/
Published Date: Tue, 26 Mar 2024 17:35:44 +0000

Read More