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Slow background checks cause staffing woes for child care providers

October 5, 2018
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Dana Russell, owner of Sunny Day Child Care and Preschool in Ammon, poses for a photo on Wednesday. Russell says she's had a hard time filling job vacancies because of the amount of time it has taken for background checks to come back.

A recent change in child care licensing rules by the cities of Idaho Falls and Ammon is causing staffing and hiring problems for child care facilities.

This summer, the cities changed their protocol on the issuance of temporary child care licenses in response to a state crackdown on stricter child care rules. Previously, the cities issued temporary licenses to child care workers, allowing them to begin working while background checks were being processed. In July, Idaho Falls and Ammon declared they would no longer issue temporary licenses.

Since the implementation of the new rule — which forbids unlicensed child care workers from being on the property of a facility until a background check is completed — child care facility owners are struggling to maintain minimum staffing requirements and hire new employees.

Potential employees often can’t wait for a background check to be completed — which can take up to 14 business days, according to records collected by the Idaho Falls City Clerk’s office.

“It’s changing our total outlook on how we run our business,” said Holly Jackson, owner of Creations of a Child in Idaho Falls. “Nobody wants to wait that long to get a paycheck.”

Multiple child care facility owners said it takes two to six weeks to have a background check completed and license issued for a new employee.

According to records collected by the Idaho Falls City Clerk’s office, a total of 66 child care licenses were issued between Aug. 20 and Oct. 2. The average time from receipt of application to issuance of the license was about seven business days. The majority of licenses were issued between three and seven business days, but nine of the 66 were issued after 11 business days and two licenses took 14 business days.

Idaho Falls City Clerk Kathy Hampton said factors that could contribute to a longer waiting period include hard-to-read fingerprints, a high number of legal jurisdictions the applicant has resided in and high workloads for state and city staff. Additionally, the Idaho Falls Police Department’s fingerprinting machine has been malfunctioning in recent weeks, which contributed to longer wait times. The machine has since been replaced.

Jackson said she has no problem with the background checks. However, the time it takes to complete a background check, the high turnover rate of employees and the shortage of skilled workers in the area, make it difficult for her to keep up with the city’s minimum staffing requirements.

“We want regulation, we want background checks,” Jackson said. “I have 43 employees, eight teachers that are just fill-ins. When we have someone who leaves, whether they quit or we have to terminate, it takes us so long to replace that person,” and it’s negatively affecting the quality of her staff.

According to Idaho Falls’ child care licensing law, facilities are required to maintain a staff to child ratio, which varies depending on whether facilities have separate classrooms for different age groups or a combined classroom for all age groups.

Facilities with separate classrooms are required to staff one licensed worker per four children age 0 to 12 months, six children age 13 to 24 months, eight children age 25 to 36 months, 12 children age 3 to 4 years old and 18 children 5 years and older.

Facilities that combine age groups into one room must follow a point system. Each age group is designated a point value, and the facility must staff one licensed worker for every 12 points.

SuZann Lund, director of Little People’s Academy in Idaho Falls, said she’s had at least two potential employees decline a job offer since the temporary license rule was changed. She said one employee, who was hired and accepted the job, submitted a license application Aug. 22 and wasn’t issued a license until Sept. 24.

“People don’t usually stick around that long to wait for a job,” Lund said.

Those workers who were issued a temporary license before the rule change had to be supervised at all times by a licensed worker. The law required that they were never allowed to be left alone with children until they were issued a permanent license.

“With our temporary licenses we were diligent, we were diligent in the safety of your children at all times,” said Dana Russell, owner of Sunny Days Child Care and Preschool in Ammon. “I agree that people need to have background checks, but I also think that there is a better way that it could have been done and set up.”

According to Idaho Falls city officials, the temporary license rule was reversed for the safety of children in child care facilities.

Mike Kirkham, Idaho Falls’ assistant city attorney, said he received a letter this summer from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, notifying the city there had been changes to state and federal child care law and background checks would need to be more strictly enforced.

“The temporary licensing conflicted with state requirements,” Kirkham said.

Idaho state law provides that a city can come up with stricter licensing laws than the state has set, but state requirements set a minimum standard, Kirkham said.

“I think it’s a lot for the safety of the kids because, if you don’t have a cleared background check, somebody could come in and harm children,” Hampton said. “As a parent, I understand that.”

Russell said she may have to start turning children away at the door if the hiring process doesn’t improve. If she doesn’t meet the required ratio, she’ll have to reduce the number of children the facility can take in. If parents are turned away by licensed child care facilities, they might have to turn to unlicensed facilities, she said.

“At some point, daycares have to sit back and go ‘OK, I don’t have people to cover these kids. I’m going to have to send them home,’” Russell said. “What’s going to happen if we have to start turning children away? Say the flu goes through and half your staff gets sick, there is no one to take their place.”

Rachael Sanders, city clerk for Ammon, acknowledged that child care providers in Ammon are having difficulties adjusting to the new rules, but said there’s nothing she can do to speed up the licensing process.

She said the city can typically issue licenses in seven to 10 business days.

Sanders used to do general checks of applicants before she issued a temporary license and she could get people working fairly quickly.

“It would be nice to have that authority again,” she said.

Hampton said the city of Idaho Falls is looking at ways it can improve its licensing procedure. She said groups that deal with child care will meet in the future to discuss recommendations they can make to the City Council.

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