Child care shortage impacts rural and agriculture jobs in the upper Midwest
The North Dakota Soybean Council's director of market development recently stepped back from her full-time job to work part time at her local rural day care. A shortage of child care is the reason.
(Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series on rural child care needs in the region.)
KINDRED, N.D. — Jena Bjertness came to North Dakota for agriculture.
She grew up in Vermillion, Minnesota, and came to North Dakota State University to major in animal science. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NDSU, then joined the workforce, first with Cargill in Wahpeton, then later at NDSU and the Northern Crops Institute before joining the North Dakota Soybean Council as the director of market development. Her job there has been to ensure that North Dakota farmers have places to sell their soybeans.
Bjertness, now 34, moved with her husband to his hometown of Kindred around 2016 and had their first child, Henry, now 6, the following year, with every intention of staying full time in the workforce.
“Back then, it was a different story,” she said. Kindred had two day care centers plus home day cares, most with openings. “We actually could choose our day care.”
They also didn’t have trouble getting their second child, Eleanor, now 3, into the same day care as their first. Their children thrived there, making friends and learning about the world.
But when their third child was born in the fall of 2022, they knew things had changed. When little Ruth was just a month old, they learned there were no openings for her at her siblings’ day care. Or anywhere else in Kindred.
“It was a very different climate for daycare,” Bjertness said, balancing the babbling 7-month-old Ruth on her hip.
That changing climate has required the Bjertness family to change with it. Bjertness first took Ruth with her to work at the North Dakota Soybean Council but now has left her full-time position and will work part time at her children’s day care, Lil' Buckaroos in Kindred, seeing the need in her rural community for child care workers.
“This place needs to stay open, and this place needs to take more kids,” she said.
Child care crunch
North Dakota — along with its neighboring states — is in a child care crunch.
An estimated 70% of the state’s 62,000 children younger than 6 have all parents in the workforce, meaning more than 43,000 children in the state need some type of child care, according to a report from North Dakota Kids Count . And in many counties, the number of open slots — 0 to 3 year olds — doesn’t come close to matching the needs for child care, with much of the deficit coming in rural areas. For instance, the report says Slope County, in the southwest, has 0% of the needed childcare, while Wells County, in the middle of the state, has just 14% of the capacity needed for children younger than 6.
It’s similar in Minnesota, where rural child care capacity has shrunk below demand in the past two decades, according to the Center For Rural Policy and Development in Mankato . And a 2021 South Dakota Kids Count report said there were seven counties in that state with no regulated child care options .
That shortage is what led Tammy Erickson to first work at and then own Lil’ Buckaroos in Kindred. She joined the business in 2008, taking it over the following year. She realized the need when she couldn’t get her own child into day care, and her husband, a developer, saw that the community couldn’t grow without child care.
Erickson previously ran a convenience store and has a degree in social work. Combining those backgrounds with raising her own six children — now in their 20s and 40s — she felt equipped to run a child care center. The business has grown through the years as Kindred has grown, from taking 75 kids in 2008 to 152 in three buildings in early May. Lil’ Buckaroos has a higher physical capacity than it is now serving, but it’s at its limit due to staffing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Health and Human Services administered Child Care Stabilization and Recovery grants, which Erickson explained allowed her to raise wages for her employees while keeping rates for her families the same. The program was a big help, she said. But the program ended in October.
Since then, she’s had to increase her rates $80 per child to maintain — though not increase — the wages for employees. While day care businesses have been “notorious” for paying minimum wage, Erickson always has been committed to paying a living wage. But as inflation and things like gas prices have gone up, she’s had a harder time offering wages high enough to get people interested in driving to Kindred. Her employees often have come from 45 minutes or more away.
The labor shortage has gotten more acute since January, Erickson said. She now has 45 employees, whereas 50 would allow her to keep her buildings full. When the staffing level dropped too low in January, she abruptly had to cut some families, something she said was a “heartache” in what had previously been an enjoyable business.
“That piece of the business has been really hard to do,” she said.
The reasons for the deficits in available child care are many, but most come back to a shortage in staffing, which also relates to difficulties in making enough money for businesses to stay viable and pay employees living wages, just as Lil’ Buckaroos has experienced. Reports from across the region talk about stagnation in salaries for early childhood care providers and teachers and the inability of families to pay any more than they already are paying, putting child care centers in a tough spot despite supply and demand seemingly being on their side.
Even now, the care doesn’t come cheap. According to the Kids Count reports, North Dakota families in 2021 paid between $7,800 and $9,800 on average for child care while South Dakota families paid $7,020 and $9,830 per year. Both are on par with a year’s tuition at a public university. Child Care Aware MN pegs statewide averages for Minnesota families at between $8,996 and $17,160 per year.
New North Dakota programs
States, communities and employers have been trying a number of things to boost the numbers of child care providers and keep service affordable, especially for lower income families.
The North Dakota Legislature in the waning days of its recent session passed House Bill 1540, a $65.6 million bill with a variety of child care initiatives, including assistance to some families earning below the median income, assistance to child care providers, money to speed up the background check process and establishing employer contribution programs . The lawmakers pushing for the bill stressed that it wasn’t a handout for families or child care providers but instead a desperately needed workforce initiative aimed at getting more people into jobs.
Bill sponsor Rep. Emily O’Brien called child care “a major barrier to workforce participation.” She has two children and and in a House Appropriations subcommittee discussed the process of being on waitlists for daycare — even having to pay just to be on the waitlists — and eventually securing child care that costs $20,000 per year for her two children. Even paying that cost doesn’t keep her from hiccups in the system, including a recent episode when her in-home child care had to close because of a norovirus outbreak. While her “small village” back in Grand Forks was able to help keep her serving in the Legislature, she said it highlighted a problem for many working families.
“Not everyone has those options,” she said.
Though the bill passed both chambers with strong majorities, it wasn’t without its detractors. Rep. Jeff Hoverson called it a well-meaning but “leftist, socialist” idea. Rep. Dan Ruby stressed that a parent should stay home with children rather than join the workforce. Rep. Donna Henderson said she had put her first two children in day care but later stayed home with her four children and found it a better fit than putting them in day care. She even ended up homeschooling.
“I think our children are much better at home with their parents,” she said.
But Rep. Robin Weisz, a farmer from Hurdsfeld in Wells County, was among the biggest proponents of the bill and on the House floor pointed out the hypocrisy of wanting people off of public assistance but not giving them the tools to get there, along with the hypocrisy of funding higher education — which he pointed out has benefited many women — and then indicating that mothers shouldn’t be in the workforce. He likened child care to other forms of infrastructure crucial to the economy.
“So do you want to call this socialism? Well, maybe. But then so is everything else we do here, just about. Then our higher ed system is socialistic. Our road system is socialistic. We don’t contribute anything to our roads here do we? Individually it’s paid for by our taxes,” he said.
Weisz and other legislators stressed that people may wish to go back to “good times” where a parent could stay home while the other worked, it’s not statistically the way it is in 2023.
“It is helping those who we want to get off assistance,” Weisz said. “We can’t sit here and say, ‘Get a job, go to work, we’re tired of paying for you, but we’re not going to help you get there,’” Weisz said.
Part of the solution
The Bjertnesses discussed Jena staying home with the kids or even going back to work only part time. However, they learned that part time day care isn’t really an option any more, and they didn’t want their kids to have to leave behind the friends they’d made.
North Dakota Soybean Council Executive Director Stephanie Sinner mobilized to use the state’s infant at work program to allow Bjertness to bring Ruth with her when she needed.
The program, Sinner explained, started under former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson. Sinner previously worked in the department and remembers being delighted to walk into a meeting with multiple infants, including one being held by Johnson.
At the Soybean Council’s Fargo office, Bjertness had a baby station. Coworkers helped out holding Ruth on occasion. And her mother-in-law took Ruth many days, too, so she wasn’t always in the office.
“Ruth learned a lot about soybean markets. She got to meet an awful lot of people,” Bjertness said.
But even with workplace support, as Ruth got older, Bjertness knew something was going to need to change.
“At that point, you’re making spreadsheets for budgets and pros and cons lists,” she said. “This is just the situation that checked the most boxes for us.”
That situation is that on May 11, Bjertness began working two days a week at Lil’ Buckaroos. She encourages other parents to connect with and support each other and to try to think of unique solutions.
“Try to think out of the box. This was definitely out of the box for us for me to work at the day care two days a week,” she said. “But it’s getting my family what we need for now.”
Bjertness sees her situation as a way to help not just her kids but other families as well.
“We can either complain about the problem or we can talk about the solution,” she said.
For employers, flexibility is key, she said. She praises Sinner’s willingness to try new things to keep her and make working possible. Bjertness is not done with the Soybean Council and now is a part-time ag marketing specialist, working on special projects for the council when she can. The arrangement will be reviewed every three months to see if it’s still working both for the council and for Bjertness.
Sinner said child care comes up in almost every employment interview the Soybean Council conducts. Potential employees are looking for help — whether financial or logistical — in securing care for children while they’re working. Sinner said she is open to using programs for state employees to get assistance in child care, and in the meantime has tried to be creative in solutions. That has included letting employees’ kids turn a conference room into a virtual learning area during COVID-19 outbreaks at their school or allowing employees to bring their kids in when schools are on short breaks. Bjertness was the first of her employees to use the infant at work program.
Sinner said she assumes the conversations Bjertness and her husband had over what to do about child care are being had all over the nation. In agriculture, it’s not unusual for one parent to be on the farm and another working off farm for extra income and other benefits. That makes child care an important component for rural economies.
Legislative hearings on HB1540 repeatedly centered around North Dakota having roughly 31,000 open jobs. Hundreds of those jobs are in agriculture, and even more are in rural areas. Leaving a full-time ag industry job that she loved wasn’t easy for Bjertness, even if it was the right move for the moment.
“I love the agriculture industry. It’s why we live here. It’s why I came to North Dakota for my education originally, and I really didn’t want to walk away from that,” Bjertness said.
But Sinner also sees child care as vital to which farmers can serve on organizations like the North Dakota Soybean Council and other commodity groups, as well as who has the opportunity to participate in other positions at churches and school boards and other institutions in rural areas.
“It’s a crisis out there for our families in this state,” she said.