Features & Images » Feature Story


Who’s minding the kids? Daycare remains a challenge for parents, for employers and for the corridor By Loreth Beswetherick Five years ago Whistler residents were posed three simple questions, one of which read: What are the community’s detractions from a healthy life today? There was one recurring answer that could not be ignored — respondents said there was not enough affordable daycare and a lack of affordable space in which to provide it. That question was part of then Healthy Communities Initiative co-ordinator Georganne Cope-Watson's needs assessment for the valley. The answer put the lack of daycare on the subsequent community forum agenda as a major issue for Whistler. Although the picture will look a little different come September 2001 when a new daycare facility is to open in Spring Creek, to date not much has changed in the amount of licensed childcare available in the valley, and frustrated parents are still scrambling. Five years ago there were about 74 licensed daycare spots in the valley and the resort's full-time population was approximately 7,000. There are still only 74 positions at the Whistler Children Centre, as yet, the only licensed group daycare facility in the valley. The resort’s population, however, is now edging toward the 10,000 mark and the local birthrate has increased significantly. There were 104 babies born in Whistler last year and 106 the year before that. In total, 511 kids have been born in the community since the beginning of 1995, the year of Cope-Watson’s survey. That is not to say all those 511 kids aged five and under are still in town and vying for those 74 daycare spots. Some may have left while others may have arrived. As Whistler Children’s Centre director Marian Hardy says, it’s a transient community and at best, population projections are a guessing game. "People come and go." She said, however, given the birth boom in recent years she expects the daycare need will be "very high in the next couple of years." Hardy said her waiting list fluctuates and is not indicative of actual need. Parents will call, for example, and decide not to sign up because of the length of wait or the cost. Hardy noted she has several un-born babies signed up and one parent said she has been waitlisted for a year. Even though kids do move in and out of the community before school age, the resort’s birth rate is generally mirrored in the Kindergarten registration rate at Myrtle Philip elementary five years down the road. In September 1998, 59 kindies signed up for school, and the following September saw about the same number. Projections for this September are for 67 Kindergarten students. So far, the Myrtle Philip estimates outlined in the District 48 budget for 2001 are 70 Kindergarten students and another 88 are anticipated for September 2002. In Whistler, the childcare crunch is for those parents with children on the younger end of the age spectrum. While the Whistler Children’s Centre is licensed for 74 children per day, there are only 12 places for kids between three and 18 months and another 12 for children between 18 and 36 months. That is better than five years ago when there was nothing at the centre for kids under 15 months of age. But, it’s still not enough to help mums like Leslie Billings or Paula Wild. Billings and Wild are not alone in their struggle to find decent daycare but their stories are illustrative. They are also moms who have decided to take action. Billings signed up her unborn baby at the Whistler Children's Centre last Sept. 4. Like others, by the time her maternity leave was up, she was still on the waitlist and getting desperate. Her son Gregory was born Oct 21. Billings told the centre she would need four days a week of childcare for when she returned to work at the Resort Municipality of Whistler on April 10. "They told me they didn't feel it would be a problem," said Billings. She contacted the centre again in January 2000, when she was told she was second or third on the waiting list. One month before she was due to start work, still nothing had changed. "They then told me I was second or third on the waiting list of new admittants," said Billings. "Any child who is already in daycare and needs additional days bumps me down. And then, any child who already has a sibling in daycare gets preference over me so I continued to get bumped down." Billings, like many other new moms, not only had to deal with any separation anxiety that comes with leaving young offspring in the care of a stranger but she had the added stress of having to return to work without actually having enough care. And, it’s not for want of trying. "There are some independent people who do childcare out of their homes but the ones who are considered the best, they don’t have any spots either. Then there are the moms who are at home with their own children," noted Billings. "I interviewed a couple of them and I sort of got the feeling that they were at home to be with their children and if I was paying them to look after my child, that was okay but my kid was just along for the ride," she said. "And, what do you do if those people who do childcare at home get sick? You end up taking sick days and then, on top of that, when your child is sick you take sick days on those days as well. At the daycare, if an employee calls in sick, at least you are not left without childcare." The Whistler Children’s Centre has now managed to accommodate Gregory two days a week. "But if my mom wasn't here to help, I'd be pretty much hooped," said Billings. She is now trying to find care for Gregory for the balance of the week. A woman who does daycare privately out of her home has agreed to look after him but Billings said the woman’s selling point is kids in her care don't get colds like they do at the Children's Centre. "So I don't know if she will accept Gregory based on the fact he is going to the daycare the other days because of the contagions." Billings says she is not alone in the community. "The more people I talk to, the more come out." She said she will talk to one woman who has a friend who has a friend… all of whom are struggling. And it’s not just finding the care, it’s being able to afford it on the top of the already high cost of living in Whistler. "It’s really tough. I don’t make a lot of money but I need to be able to justify going back to work." If a parent is lucky enough to land full-time daycare for a child under 18 months at the Whistler Children’s Centre, they can expect to hand over $915 per month for the privilege. For a child 36 months and under, the cost for care five days a week is $815 per month. Hardy said the $915 breaks down to $42 per day. "If you maximize the hours we are open, it’s $4.45 per hour." Still, weighed against the average Whistler wage of $8-$12 per hour, or taken in the context of a single parent or a family with two or more young children, daycare goes to the heart of the community’s affordability issue. Billing's beef is not with the Children's Centre, it's with the municipality and a general lack of employer support in the community. She said the municipality may be hearing from the Dandelion Daycare Society that daycare is a problem, "But that's just from the children's centre. They are not hearing from the public. Their main concern, being a resort community, is revenue from tourism and the type of experience the tourist is having in our community," she said. "But without the moms and dads in this town, this place wouldn't run. Daycare has to be made more of a priority. It's impacting the municipality in ways they are not seeing and something needs to be done about it." Billings is now on the development committee for the Spring Creek daycare, which will provide a total of 74 more spots for kids between the ages of three months and five years. She has also been speaking to other parents at groups like the moms and tots drop-in and she is trying to start a daycare co-op to provide more affordable care. The biggest challenge, she said, is not the licensing and insurance requirements for the co-op, but finding space to offer the program. "I am putting together a proposal and I would like to approach some of the larger employers in the community, for example the RMOW, the Chateau Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb and say, look, you guys have large facilities, surely, amongst you there must be a room we could use," said Billings. "We would do everything else." Parents could work at the co-op in exchange for care plus pay a minimum cost to cover insurance, the space and equipment. Those who work more would pay less, and vice-versa. Billings is also drafting a petition and questionnaire. She will be circulating the petition among as many parents as possible, asking them to sign a statement declaring the lack of affordable, flexible childcare is impacting the community in ways people don’t realize and that something needs to be done about it. The petition will be forwarded to council. Billings will also be asking employers and human resources departments if employees are missing work due to childcare challenges. "Many women I have spoken to are," noted Billings. She said they are also having to cut back on work and job share. This comes in the face of an employee shortage in the community last year. The mountains are expecting to feel the impact of a world-wide labour shortage in the next couple of years and have acknowledged they will have to aggressively compete with other resorts for employees. According to last year’s RMOW community monitoring report, 22 per cent of Whistler’s work force live in Pemberton or Squamish. Many are young families whose move was motivated by affordability. They may be living in Pemberton or Squamish but they are still feeding the local labour market and drawing on some of Whistler’s infrastructure, like daycare. Eight years ago the Whistler Children’s Centre changed its mandate to accept children from anywhere within the Howe Sound School District in recognition of the changing demographics. Children from Pemberton, and even Squamish, are being waitlisted fair and square with Whistler kids. "We make no jurisdictional call," said Hardy. Pemberton resident Paula Wild has been on that waitlist for a year. She works four days a week at Whistler Village Sports but lives in Pemberton. Wild has two children and has been using the services of the Pemberton Children’s Centre which opened four years ago. The future of that for-profit facility, however, is uncertain. It is slated to close July 31 and if the new Pemberton Daycare Society cannot raise enough funds to buy the $60,000 business, the impact will be felt in Whistler. There are an estimated 75 parents who, like Wild, use the Pemberton centre and commute to work in Whistler. "Fifty per cent of the families who use that centre have one or both parents working in Whistler," said Wild, who is now chair of the Pemberton Daycare Society and lobbying for funds. "The closure could have huge ramifications for Whistler." The society is looking to the Whistler community for help in its fund-raising efforts but it will be competing with the Dandelion Daycare Society’s drive to raise cash for the Spring Creek facility. They have also been meeting with the Dandelion Daycare Society, which has the option of taking Pemberton under its wing as a satellite facility. Part of the Whistler Children’s Centre’s mandate, for example, is to provide outreach services. "Marian Hardy has been very helpful," said Wild. "One of her suggestions was that any parents who work in Whistler ask their employers to write a letter to people like (MLA) Ted Nebbeling and (MP) John Reynolds letting them know how important adequate daycare is to their businesses and that they would loose employees if those employees didn’t have childcare." Hardy said a Pemberton daycare closure would have tremendous impact on Whistler. "It would be absolutely devastating. I told them (the Pemberton Daycare Society) at their meeting, I hope you will do what you can to stay open. I don’t mean to be doom and gloom, but… we are full here in Whistler." Wild said the Village of Pemberton has said it is supportive but there is just no money to put toward a non-profit daycare in the community. "We are exploring all options. We are taking baby steps. We are meeting every week but there is only so much you can do in a week," said Wild. "We really just want to get the word out there that we need some help… volunteers or anybody who can offer anything." The Pemberton Daycare Centre currently pays $2,092 — all inclusive — to lease 3,000 square feet of space in the old school that is the Pemberton Community Centre. Children also get use of the gym. The Community Centre is reliant on that rent and its future, too, is uncertain. Peter Duhault, head of recreation services for the community, said he will be released from his position come September 2000 due to funding cuts. Other staff have already been laid off. "Financially, there is no money to draw on at this time," said Duhault. He said Pemberton’s small tax base is one reason. "There is also no industrial and there is no hospitality tax to draw upon," he said. "Whistler is an anomaly in the province but a lot of people here look to Whistler and see what that community has and they perceive they should also have the same things. But, at this time, Pemberton doesn’t have that sort of development and growth." Hardy feels, however, the addition of another 74 spots at the Spring Creek Centre will go a long way to meeting needs. The Dandelion Daycare Society also hopes to license a family daycare program that will open another seven spots in a more intimate environment, perhaps in an employee housing unit. There was initially talk of more daycare space at the Maurice Young Millennium Place but that space will likely be used for pre-school programs — along the lines of the ones being offered by the municipality — plus child-minding for parents while they are at the centre and for childcare of out-of-towners on weekends. Stephen Milstein said, however, locals may well end up filling the weekend space. Millennium Place will be licensed to accommodate 16 children. Milstein said the daycare committee of Millennium Place is currently structuring a call for proposals. The Dandelion Daycare Society has indicated it is interested in the space. The inflexibility of programs offered, however, will likely remain problematic for many parents. Many working moms and dads find their needs keep changing. They work holidays and evenings or have schedules that fluctuate weekly in this resort town. Some have to hire nannies to bridge the period between the time they start or end work and the daycare opening and closing hours. The centre is not licensed to receive kids before 8 a.m., the time Billings is expected to clock in. Her supervisor can’t complain though, she is also late several times a week due to daycare. "We try to be as flexible as possible," said Hardy. "The problem for us is we work on a month-to-month basis. Parents are required to give us a month’s notice so it is really hard to project what space availability will be in two months time," she said. "We try to give parents as much warning as possible but we are recommending they do look for alternate solutions, be it a family member or an in-home daycare or a co-op." As Cope-Watson noted half a decade ago, this lack of flexibility, plus a greater absentee potential, has prejudiced employers against parents, particularly mothers. Billings said not much has changed. "You read in all these magazine articles that employers are more accepting of family and that type of thing. Well, that is a load of hooey. I have yet to be in a work environment where they really are."