Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Tuesday, December 1, 2020 by Andrew Weber

For child care providers in Austin, city relief couldn’t come soon enough

Patsy Harnage doesn’t get a lot of holidays. For the last decade, she’s grown accustomed to working herself to the bone. Operating a child care center is hard work, built on razor-thin margins. That’s part of the job; it’s an unsung vocation.

The margins over the last half-year have been even thinner, and her business, Bright Beginnings Child Development Center, has had to do way more with way less.

“I’m always one month from going out of business. We have very thin margins and that’s how it’s always been,” she said.

But, for Harnage and many other child care providers in Austin struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, $5 million in relief money from the city of Austin will provide a lifeline.

That relief money comes from the resolution known as SAVES, or Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors. While a lot of the focus on the fund – KUT’s coverage included – has been around retail, restaurants and live music venues, advocates for the child care industry have been ringing an alarm bell.

The industry is the backbone of Austin’s workforce, and providers have been struggling as clients drop off because of concerns over Covid-19 or an inability to pay due to the pandemic.

“I’m appreciative of any assistance we get,” Harnage said. “The SAVES money will probably sustain us for a month. We’ve always been on a back burner, so it’s like I’ve grown immune to it. This is the way it is.”

Harnage says she’s had about 20 families stop coming during the pandemic, and the Rundberg center is operating with about 60 percent of the revenue it normally sees. Still, she says, many of her clients are struggling, too.

Many are essential workers and only able to pay for child care because of the Texas Workforce Commission’s subsidies for working families. It’s unclear whether those subsidies will continue in 2021.

Harnage says she and her staff are happy to be there for those families.

“We’re here for the families,” she said. “Even though we have this cloud hanging over our head with financing and this Covid thing … with all of this, we’ve maintained for the children a sense of normalcy.”

A survey earlier this year from the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found roughly half of providers surveyed were most concerned about being able to pay their employees and themselves, and 54 percent of respondents said they were concerned they’d lose clients as a result of the pandemic.

As of September, 20 providers in the area have closed, according to Cathy McHorse of the United Way for Greater Austin. Others that have closed temporarily could close permanently come January.

The SAVES money is coming at a much-needed time, as the state’s reimbursements for child care – which many Austin providers are relying on – expire at the end of December. Raising tuition prices at a time when clients are struggling isn’t really an option. So the city grants will help fill the gap.

“When you take out families who are the funding stream, you don’t have anything to sustain that business,” McHorse said. “At the same time, you have essential workers … that can’t stay home and take care of their children, but they also can’t afford to pay the true cost of child care.”

The city contracted with the United Way to distribute the grants, which could range from $2,500 to $60,000. McHorse said applications should be open within the next month or so.

Harnage said she’s just happy to be off the back burner and that it’s heartening to see the city recognize the vital role the child care industry plays in the economy.

“I can’t even think about what’s going on – this whole pandemic trauma and all of this,” she said. “When I walk through Bright Beginnings and I see my babies’ smiles and my staff is working and they’re feeding their families, it’s a sense of purpose.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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