Photo Courtesy Rick Howard Photo Courtesy Rick Howard

Michigan childcare centers are receiving funds to help them operate and retain employees during a time when they’re desperately needed.

TROY, Mich.—Rick Howard got the message late Monday night: He’d been accepted for a state grant program that helps childcare centers stay open and retain employees.

A tech whiz turned childcare center owner, Howard often isn’t on-board with government payback programs that he says aren’t connected with reality. He finds they over-regulate and under-deliver. But the pandemic-related grants and stimulus are different, he says.

For many childcare centers and small businesses generally, government intervention has kept business afloat; for him and his wife, it’s helped steer them through months of unpredictable, and sometimes absent, profit.

“It’s really made life okay for us,” Howard said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, attendance plummeted for Grace Christian Learning Center. A 12-classroom daycare dropped to 20 students. It just wasn’t feasible. 

For fear of exposing employees and children to a deadly mysterious virus, Grace Christian Learning Center shut down.

Howard’s business has been open for 30 years now, since shortly after his marriage to his wife Rita. Howard joined her full-time in 2008. 

The couple were inspired to open Grace Christian Learning Center after their first child died shortly after birth. Her name was Gracie.

“Grace is kind of a double meaning in Grace Christian Learning Center,” Howard said. 

In their many years of service to the community after, the couple has always striven to be fair. That’s the word Howard emphasized over and over again—fairness to customers in accompanying their schedules and hardships, fairness to children in understanding their unique wants and needs, and fairness to their employees, who Howard said were the backbone of running a good business.

The pandemic tested what the definition of “fairness” meant though, Howard said. Ordinarily, parents were required to build schedules for their children two weeks in advance. That way, the daycare could respond to any staffing changes, accommodate time off for employees, and aim for some consistency in numbers. 

But with people getting sick left and right, that same standard no longer fit, Howard said. There were times when one child in a class tested positive and everyone had to isolate, shutting down a class of 14 or so for 10 days. Howard and his wife just had to swallow the lost $15,000 or $20,000 a week of revenue.

“We’re eating the financial cost of a lot of these COVID shutdowns,” Howard said.

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Meanwhile, Grace Christian Learning Center has felt the direct impact of labor shortages. Howard said he’s had trouble finding people to fill open roles and that three classrooms are closed as a result, despite offering higher wages. 

Since he’s enticing newer employees with higher wages, he’s also brought up the pay of those who have been with the company, in the name of fairness.

“It starts with good employees,” Howard said. “You have to have good leadership, but you have to hire good people.”

Those are just some of the challenges that Grace Christian Learning Center has confronted two years into the pandemic, and Howard will be the first to admit that they’ve had a few rocky months financially.

However, with the daycare being an established community pillar, and the couple having just recently paid off its mortgage, the business is going strong. Howard said that Grace Christian Learning School would have made it through no matter what, even if by “tightening our belt.”

Of course, there’s the matter of childcare grants though. On Nov. 8, 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the Child Care Stabilization Grant would give every full-time child care professional a $1,000 bonus and support struggling and small businesses, allocated from money in the already-decided state budget.

“Childcare is the backbone of a strong economy and childcare professionals and programs go above and beyond every day to care for our kids, helping them learn and grow in a safe environment,” Whitmer said in a news release.

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Howard said he’s “blessed.” Bonuses, he guesses, could help keep centers open and retain and recruit employees to child care, which has been desperately needed.

He recognizes many businesses haven’t been as fortunate.

“I appreciate it. I’m very, very grateful,” Howard said. “I don’t know if we deserve all of this help.”

In fact, he wondered why he, who’s been able to make it through, was eligible to receive a grant as a child care center, when small businesses of all kinds have struggled, some more than him. 

Experts whom The ‘Gander spoke to last year suggested that could be because of labor market shortages. The more affordable child care options there are, the more prime working-age parents might decide to reenter the workforce. Then, they can fill those labor shortage gaps across all industries.

“That is a big barrier for our families to get back on our feet and identify employment. Their children need child care,” said Michelle LaJoie, executive director of Community Action Alger-Marquette in a fall 2021 interview with The ‘Gander.

A shortage of childcare workers and centers has been a theme in Michigan prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

Sure to come as welcome news to the Troy community, Howard and Grace Christian Learning Center are going nowhere anytime soon. The mortgage is paid off, the grants are coming, and business is picking back up. 

“It’s a great business. It’s a great ministry,” Howard said. “It’s wonderful to be a business owner. We’re really blessed to have a business.”

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