New Jersey’s economic recovery is at risk because the child-care industry is on the verge of collapse, business owners and policy analysts told an Assembly committee at an online hearing.

The finances of the child-care industry were strained before the coronavirus pandemic and now have been smashed. They face higher costs for protective equipment, hiring demands to meet new staffing ratios and plunging revenue as families un-enroll.

Meghan Tavormina, president of the New Jersey Association for Education of Young Children, said it’s a funding crisis that government must help fix. The businesses can’t make up for lost revenues by cutting staff because new staff-to-child ratios will require more workers, not less.

“Child care is one of the largest bills a family incurs each month, and pre-pandemic they simply could not absorb any of these increases,” Tavormina said. “The solution of New Jersey’s child care system and its reopening cannot come on the backs of parents.”

Lightbridge Academy used to average 79% occupancy but reopened this month at 13%, said Guy Falzarano, its co-founder and chief executive officer.

He said the business, including 43 child care centers in New Jersey, stayed afloat with Paycheck Protection Program funds and now seeks to get by through a Main Street loan from the Federal Reserve that would double its debt.

“If we’re not approved, our alternative is we’re going out of business by October,” Falzarano said. “So we’re in pretty dire straits.”

Child-care center owner Winifred Smith Jenkins says it’s not easy to find workers, given that staffers work up close with little kids who have a tough time wearing masks.

“They are now required to do extra, take unimaginable health risks, for minimum wage or a little bit more? These days, it is easier and safer to work at Target or Walmart,” Jenkins said.

Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst for the Association for Children of New Jersey, said national data indicates half of child-care programs will either not reopen or won’t be able to stay open. She says salary support from the federal or state governments is key.

“We need more than warm bodies for our kids. Well, without addressing this pay issue, even warm bodies are going to be hard to find,” Rice said.

Karyn Jarzyk, owner of Kiddie Academy, said child-care centers are also burdened by new state guidance issued June 15 that is not developmentally appropriate.

“This new guidance, while ensuring the health of our children we care for, has turned our educational child care centers into babysitting services,” Jarzyk said. “This is not what our working families want for their children, and more importantly it’s not developmentally sound for our children.”

Jheryn Kenney, who paused her 20-year career to be home with her kids during COVID, said for most parents, everything they’ve built is at risk if there aren’t child-care options.

“Without adequate child care that we feel comfortable and confident with, it all falls apart,” Kenney said.

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