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For Child Care Providers In Austin, City Relief Couldn't Come Soon Enough

Mainspring Schools Preschool, closed during the coronavirus pandemic, in south Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Mainspring Schools Preschool in South Austin was one of many child care providers that was forced to close early on during the pandemic.

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Patsy Harnage doesn't get a lot of holidays. For the last decade, she's grown accustomed to working herself to the bone. Operating a child care center is hard work, built on razor-thin margins. That's part of the job; it's an unsung vocation.

The margins over the last half year have been even thinner, and her business, Bright Beginnings Child Development Center has had to do way more with way less.

"I'm always one month from going out of business. We have very thin margins and that's how it's always been," she said.

But, for Harnage and many other child care providers in Austin struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, $5 million in relief money from the City of Austin will provide a lifeline.

That relief money comes from the resolution known as SAVES, or Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors. While a lot of the focus on the fund – KUT's coverage included – has been around retail, restaurant and live music venues, advocates for the child care industry have been ringing an alarm bell.

The industry is the backbone of Austin's workforce, and it's been struggling as clients drop off because of concerns over COVID-19 or an inability to pay due to the pandemic.

"I'm appreciative of any assistance we get," Harnage said. "The SAVES money will probably sustain us for a month. We've always been on a back burner, so it's like I've grown immune to it. This is the way it is."

Harnage says she's had about 20 families stop coming during the pandemic, and the Rundberg center is operating with about 60% of the revenue it normally sees. Still, she says, many of her clients are struggling, too.

"Even though we have this cloud hanging over our head with financing and this COVID thing ... with all of this, we've maintained for the children a sense of normalcy."
Patsy Harnage

Many are essential workers and only able to pay for child care because of the Texas Workforce Commission's subsidies for working families. It's unclear whether those subsidies will continue in 2021.

Harnage says she and her staff are happy to be there for those families.

"We're here for the families," she said. "Even though we have this cloud hanging over our head with financing and this COVID thing ... with all of this, we've maintained for the children a sense of normalcy."

A survey earlier this year from the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs found roughly half of providers surveyed were most concerned about being able to pay their employees and themselves, and 54% of respondents said they were concerned they'd lose clients as a result of the pandemic.

As of September, 20 providers in the area have closed, according to Cathy McHorse of the United Way for Greater Austin. Others that have closed temporarily could close permanently come January.

The SAVES money is coming at a much-needed time, as the state's reimbursements for child care – which many Austin providers are relying on – expire at the end of December. Raising tuition prices, at a time when clients are struggling, isn't really an option. So the city grants will help fill the gap.

"When you take out families who are the funding stream, you don't have anything to sustain that business," McHorse said. "At the same time, you have essential workers ... that can't stay home and take care of their children, but they also can't afford to pay the true cost of child care."

The city contracted with the United Way to distribute the grants, which could range from $2,500 to $60,000. McHorse said applications should be open within the next month or so.

Harnage said she's just happy to be off the back burner and that it's heartening to see the city recognize the vital role the child care industry plays in the economy.

"I can't even think about what's going on – this whole pandemic trauma and all of this," she said. "When I walk through Bright Beginnings and I see my babies' smiles and my staff is working and they're feeding their families, it's a sense of purpose."

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Corrected: December 1, 2020 at 6:23 PM CST
A previous version of this story referred to a survey from the University of Houston's Hobby School of Government. It is the Hobby School of Public Affairs.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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