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In April 2019, 11-month-old Wren looks on and smiles as Mandy Willis watches her in Willis' home. Willis runs Moving Mountains Early Learning Center and uses MyVillage, a company that helps people start and run child care centers in their home. Options for child care in Missoula are so scare, some providers advise parents to request a spot as soon as they find out they're pregnant.

Options for child care in Missoula are so scarce that some providers are advising expecting mothers to request a spot for their children as soon as they find out they're pregnant.

"I say that the day you find out you’re pregnant, you need to call me," said Katherine West, the executive director of Fort Courage Childcare, a center for children aged 6 weeks to 5 years old in the Orchard Homes area.

The first sentence of the "about" section on Fort Courage's Facebook page reads: "We currently do not have any openings for child care through the rest of 2019," yet West continues to receive numerous phone calls and emails from desperate parents on a daily basis.

"I've had 10 phone calls and 12 emails today," West said Monday night at a panel held to discuss the challenges that child care providers in Missoula are facing.

Ellie Caplis, the owner and operator of Imagination Station, thought about expanding her program on Missoula's Northside to meet the demand. However, the lack of affordable rentals in Missoula coupled with a state law that prevents homeowners from being able to get insurance that covers renting to child care programs, forced her to abandon the idea for the time being.

"I hear parents' voices crack when they’ve called me, and they’re on the letter 'I' and every facility before that’s full or they're trying to work on this small list that a handful of friends in Missoula has given them," she said.

On top of those challenges, low wages are pushing some child care workers to leave their jobs or downsize their programs, like Yohana Weaver, the owner of Little Wings Playschool. She said she would make the same amount caring for four kids from her home as she does from renting a house to use as a care facility to care for more children.

On average, child care workers in Montana make $22,360 per year, compared to $28,860 for preschool teachers and $50,000 for kindergarten teachers, according to a 2018 report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

In a panel on child care held last week, the providers said state homeowner insurance laws, the cost of renting in Missoula, and meager wages earned by most members of the child care workforce are all factors that contribute to the problem. Child care providers in Missoula County currently only have the licensed capacity to serve 43% of the county's children ages zero to 5, according to the DLI report.

Organized by United Way Missoula's Zero to Five initiative, the panel was held as part of a wider initiative to increase access to quality, affordable child care in the Missoula area. The initiative — which was started after the Missoula Chamber of Commerce identified the lack of child care providers as an issue potentially limiting the local labor supply and preventing the city's economic development — aims to foster collaboration among businesses, community leaders and child care providers to address the barriers to accessible child care.

"It's awesome to hear how much this is echoing," said Grace Decker, United Way Missoula's Zero to Five coordinator.

At the panel,, which also included members of the Missoula City Council, the Chamber and other organizations, Decker asked the providers to share the challenges they have faced in operating their businesses. 

Caplis, who currently has a waiting list for her facility, said she sees the need for space among providers as one of the greatest challenges to expanding existing facilities or opening new ones.

BriAnne Moline, who runs Wild Wonders Early Learning, added that the insurance laws make it hard to find a facility to operate in and have forced her to close and relocate her business.

Moline was operating a home-based center out of her residence, which she rented, until she was evicted because the property owners didn't allow in-home early learning programs. She had to close her business temporarily until she found a new house to rent, which also had to meet licensing standards.

Moline pays almost $1,900 a month for the new three-bedroom home she moved into, which she says is 4.27 times more expensive than what she paid before.

"Obviously I had to expand, I had to raise my rates, which killed me because I want to be able to provide quality care for all families but in order to make a living and pay my employees and still continue to have a high quality program, I did have to raise my rates," Moline said.

One mother started crying when Moline broke the news.

The situation isn't any easier for Moline, who started tearing up Monday as she told the panel the owner of the home she's now renting recently contacted her and said she will have to find a new home to live in next June because the property manager hadn't notified the owner that Moline is a child care provider.

Clint Burson, the director of government affairs with the Chamber, attended the panel and said the biggest takeaway for him is the obstacles created by the state's insurance laws.

Burson said that he's going to start looking into the law to see if there are options around it for Missoula child care providers.

If there aren't ways around it, he said the Chamber may work with other community partners and state legislatures to see if they can draft a bill for the next legislative session to change the law.

Burson said he also noted the issue of the low wages that make it hard to retain child care workers.

West said that although child care is out of many families' budgets, workers need to be paid more to sustain a quality system.

"There's no one who can afford to work in child care," West said. " ... How can you expect that person to show up here for $8.50 an hour and take care of the thing that’s the most precious to you?"

The low wages make it hard for small providers to keep up with the costs of running a licensed facility to begin with, let alone leaving them with money to change business models or expand.

Weaver — who would make the same amount of money caring for fewer kids from her home than she does with her current business — said she didn't have any savings to put down a deposit or the first month's rent on a new facility when the family she currently rents a house from gave her 30 days notice after they had an emergency that almost necessitated the sale of the house.

The family came up with another solution, and Weaver is still able to operate from the home, but she said the experience made her realize how quickly everything could be taken away from her.

Weaver also said that if she didn't have to pay rent, she could put $1,200 a month toward hiring another employee. Hiring another full-time employee would allow her to expand the age range of children she cares for to include infants, yet another demand among families in Missoula.

At the panel, Kim Latrielle, the president and CEO of the Chamber, asked the providers if they would be willing to operate out of a location provided by a business, to which many nodded their head in agreement.

Recently, the Missoula tech firm Submittable opened an in-house child care facility for its employees, which the Chamber hopes can serve as a model for other businesses.

"What we’re hoping is that we can move the dial on it," Latrielle said. "We have a business community that can’t grow so they’re leaning in and that’s probably, they should’ve leaned in a long time ago, but I think they’re doing it now."

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