Lack of staff closes Watson Lake’s only daycare

Facility can’t afford to pay competitive wages to attract staff, board president says

Watson Lake’s only licensed daycare has closed, leaving families of around a dozen children looking for somewhere else to care for their kids.

Today was the last day for the Watson Lake Daycare. Board president Tanis Secerbegovic said a lack of staff means the non-profit organization can’t continue for now.

Secerbegovic said the daycare had five staff members six weeks ago, but three have left for various reasons.

Finding daycare staff to come work in Watson Lake is “next to impossible,” she said. The group has had an ad up for years looking for employees.

“We are always looking for new staff. We’ve had a great deal of difficulty in getting staff.”

Secerbegovic said it’s difficult to find and keep staff in part because of the wages the daycare is able to pay, which start at about $15 or $16 per hour.

“What I do know is what we pay is six dollars less an hour than what is paid, for example, to the person who applies for a job with the town of Watson Lake to work at the front desk of our recreation complex.”

The need for more money is a sentiment echoed by Yukon Party MLA Patti McLeod, who represents Watson Lake.

McLeod said the daycare closing is “symptomatic of a larger problem that needs to be addressed — that is, making it easier for daycares to access the direct operating grant funding.”

There also “needs to be an infusion of cash into the system,” she said.

The Watson Lake Daycare receives funding from the government through a number of grants. That includes the territory’s direct operating grant which is meant to help cover operations and maintenance costs as well as wages.

So far this fiscal year it has received a total of around $19,000 from the direct operating grant. Last year it received roughly $58,000, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

The grant is calculated in part based on the experience of staff. The more highly trained the staff, the more money a daycare gets.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services, the calculation does not include any consideration for whether a daycare is in Whitehorse or in the communities.

The Watson Lake Daycare is not able to attract staff with high levels of training, Secerbegovic said, meaning it can’t get more money to pay higher wages.

“I think that maybe there should be a way that we can apply for extra money and say ‘these are our extenuating circumstances.’ You can’t equate us with Whitehorse, say, where you have a pool of people to draw from,” she said.

Secerbegovic said her organization isn’t “sitting here asking for handouts.” Parents fundraise throughout the year to try and cover extra costs, she said.

“I think a really precious resource is our children and I don’t think that we pay enough attention to the early childhood care that they’re getting or not getting.”

Improving the direct operating grant is something the NDP has been calling for since at least 2015. McLeod wouldn’t say whether she regrets that her party didn’t increase it while it was in power.

As part of the 2016 territorial election campaign the Yukon Party promised to double the size of the operating grant and provide some base funding for daycares in Ross River, Watson Lake and Dawson City.

Jean MacLean has managed to find a friend who is willing to babysit for her two-year-old who used to attend the Watson Lake Daycare. But there’s no guarantee that can go on forever, she said.

She’s hoping someone will step in and help get a daycare running again.

“If this community doesn’t have a daycare, there’s a significant population of people that are not going to be able to go to work,” she said.

“There might be people who don’t choose to come here…. We won’t be able to entice them to come here if we don’t have daycare.”

For her part, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said her department is going to reach out to the Watson Lake Daycare.

“I do care about the children, we all care about the children and families and we do not want to see any of our daycare centres close,” she said.

Earlier this year the federal government announced a $7.5 billion deal over 11 years for child care across the country.

Yukon’s share, at least for the next three years, works out to about $2.4 million per year, Frost told the legislative assembly in June.

The deal laying out how that that money will be spent and when it’s slated to start flowing hasn’t been signed yet.

Frost told reporters she hoped the money will be used to increase wages.

“We hear consistently that the wages of the child care workers are not so great…certainly not what we want, we want to see fair equitable wages across the board. But what we don’t do is we don’t determine what the child care centre pays.”

Secerbegovic said she didn’t reach out to the government to let them know about the shutdown.

She said the board thought it had more time to figure out a solution but then one employee who had originally given a month’s notice decided to leave early.

She said she did try and contact the department three times over the last six weeks over other issues and never heard back.

McLeod has criticized Frost for not meeting with the daycare in June while visiting Watson Lake.

Both Frost and McLeod said they believe the daycare was slated to be open again by January but Secerbegovic said a final decision hasn’t been made yet. The board is scheduled to meet this weekend to talk about the future, she said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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