Capitol Notes

Delays and Silence from Cuomo in response to New York’s child care crisis

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s response to the potential collapse of the state’s child care system has been slow and insufficient, according to industry professionals.

Instead of a rapid deployment of federal resources and a broad increase in subsidy eligibility for parents in desperate need of care for their children, the Cuomo administration has been late paying industry contracts, took months to disburse a small fraction of the assistance New York received from Washington D.C., restricted access to funding and has been mum on child care recommendations submitted last month.

“We are beyond a crisis here,” said Beth Starks, executive director of the Chautauqua Lake Child Care Center. “It was a crisis six weeks ago … and now we are well beyond that.”

New York’s child care system was fundamentally flawed long before the novel coronavirus presented its own set of financial challenges, with policies from the Capitol resulting in providers paid barely enough to keep their doors open and many parents shut out from government assistance that would make care affordable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems, with 28 percent of child care providers outside of New York City that serve infants and toddlers being forced to close their doors, according to a report from Raising New York. And with schools closed and summer camps unlikely to operate at full capacity, parents will need to have access to child care if they’re going to go back to work as part of the state’s reopening process.

“There are providers closing their doors everyday … and about half of them will never reopen,” said Starks, who is a member of the child care availability task force created in 2018.

CARES Act

A potential lifeline to providers and parents materialized in late March with the passage of the CARES Act, which included about $164 million for child care in New York.

On April 23, the governor outlined a plan to spend $30 million on supplies for providers and to cover the cost of child care for essential workers. It took almost a month for the state to deliver on promised cash advances, with New York City’s money delayed an additional three weeks due to paperwork complications.

Child care providers around the state that could afford the upfront costs accepted eligible children into their programs on faith that they would eventually be reimbursed. The same gesture was made by the coordinating agencies with money in the bank to purchase supplies, such as masks and baby wipes.

More than 3,000 child care providers in New York City are still waiting for their supplies, which were ordered through a third-party vendor and put on hold until the state’s check arrived. Day Care Council of New York Executive Director Andrea Anthony was hopeful Wednesday that the supplies can be distributed soon, as she got word this week the advance had been approved for New York City.

Cash poor

Agencies that coordinate between parents and providers would have been in a better position to lay out money for supplies if the state – strapped for cash due to the pandemic and a delayed tax filing deadline – wasn’t already late in reimbursing some of them for bills covering January through March.

“We’re still waiting for that to come through,” said Anthony, who is a member of the child care task force. She said her agency currently has enough money in reserves to pay about one month of paychecks.

And it’s possible that payments to these agencies for the current quarter, which ends June 30, could also be delayed.

“I’m hearing from the state, not officially, but unofficially, that all state payments will be held up,” said Jennifer Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk, Inc.

Limited access

The effect of the federal subsidies has also been diminished by the Cuomo administration limiting access to families making no more than 300 percent above the federal poverty level. The expanded eligibility goes beyond the traditional income limits for government assistance in New York, but many counties had already taken advantage of a waiver allowing them to utilize existing state subsidies at a threshold above this higher cap.

Rojas said they’ve had to turn away about 100 children of essential workers who made too much to qualify for the program.

And while the federal money can still be easier to obtain and used to pay for costly co-payments not covered by existing state subsidies, the governor’s child care task force has recommended that any additional federal funds go to families making up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level.

“The truth is, we’ve gotten feedback that it’s not going to change at all,” said Rojas, who is a member of the task force.

Silence

That feedback has not come directly from the governor, as multiple task force members interviewed for this story said they haven’t heard anything from his office about the recommendations sent to him on May 18.

Legislation creating the child care availability task force was signed into law in late 2017, and it was assembled about a year later. A final report is due from the task force by the end of  the year.

Jenn O’Connor, a task force member and director of policy and advocacy at Prevent Child Abuse New York, said the lack of action following the submission of the May recommendations is very frustrating.

“I watch him every day. I think he has some good stuff in motion, but when you’re in the trenches … we need an answer. We need to know what the plan is,” O’Connor said. “If the recommendations aren’t any good, at least come back to us and let us know how to fix them”

In addition to increasing the income eligibility for parents and funding scholarships for children, the task force also recommended using some of the remaining $134 million in federal aid for monthly emergency operating grants to subsidize providers struggling to make ends meet due to limited enrollment and increased costs. This type of funding is seen as a critical measure to ward off mass closures.

At a virtual press conference Thursday, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, a Queens Democrat, said it’s a mistake to leave the remaining federal funds sitting in the state’s bank account.

“If the logic from the governor’s office is, ‘well, we may want to invest that in something else,’ well our message is, respectfully, ‘there’s nothing else that’s more important than this.’ So we need to spend that money now,” Hevesi said.

It’s not clear how the state will use the money, though, as the Cuomo administration and the state Office of Children and Family Services did not respond to questions for this story. A rumor is circulating among the industry that OCFS is either in the process of writing a spending plan or recently finished it.

The lack of a proposal from the state on spending the remaining money is concerning to O’Connor, who said, “Our congressional delegation fought hard for this money, and if we don’t spend it right away it looks like we don’t need it.”

In an attempt to prompt state action, the industry has tried repeatedly to gain the attention of journalists in the Capitol, hoping they might grill the governor about the issue during his daily briefings. They had been advised, based on Cuomo’s habits during the pandemic, that if the same question was asked multiple days in a row he would be pressured into action.

“We’ve tried over the last month or so to get someone to ask the question at his briefings,” O’Connor said. “It’s not a sexy issue, but at the end of the day its necessary for the state to reopen.”

Moving forward

As the state embarks on the governor’s planned transition to normalcy, with retailers allowing in-store shopping in phase two and restaurants opening their doors to diners in phase three, demand for child care is expected to increase.

But with social distancing and capacity restrictions, it will likely be harder than ever for child care providers to make ends meet without new levels of government support. “The system was in crisis long before this pandemic … so it’s much worse now,” Rojas said.

Her hope is that the industry will be treated like a public good in the future, with the state providing levels of funding that recognize the current reimbursement levels for providers are too low and too many parents are being denied access.

While the state has deemed child care an essential industry and Cuomo’s rhetoric has stressed the role child care needs to play in reopening non-essential businesses, Rojas said, “There has not been commensurate action to follow those words to ensure child care is available.”

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