Jenia Toney of Dorchester worked at a home for the elderly until two days before her son Levi was born. Now he’s 11 months old, and Toney’s ready to return to her job.

“I’m a single mother,” she said. “You know, I got to get back to work.”

So she’s trying to find Levi a spot in day care. But the private options she looked into were too expensive.

“Five hundred, six hundred dollars a week,” she said. “I can’t afford that.”

So she’s on a waitlist to get Levi a state-subsidized spot in day care. Toney worries that, if one doesn’t open up soon, her work might stop holding a job for her.

Levi isn’t alone. He’s one of 15,000 Massachusetts children currently on the waitlist for a state-subsidized day care spot.

But residents up and down the income ladder — including the three-quarters of Massachusetts kids who don’t get a subsidy — are struggling to find affordable child care, or any child care at all. There just aren’t enough early education classrooms because of a shortage of workers interested in low-paying day care jobs. Legislation working its way through Congress could transform how child care operates in the United States, but for now, families are confronting high costs, and workers are confronting low wages.

Laura Perille is the president and CEO of Nurtury, which used to run five state-subsidized day care centers in the area. But they couldn’t find enough staff for all their classrooms.

“We aggressively attempt to hire. We have signing bonuses,” Perille said. “There just aren’t people out there who are willing to enter into the child care field, primarily due to the low wages and challenging work. So, what we decided was that the best way to meet our mission was to reduce our footprint to fewer locations.”

Children play at the Nurtury Learning Lab in Jamaica Plain
Craig LeMoult GBH News

Nurtury consolidated its staff into four locations in September. They also gave their employees a bonus and raise of a dollar an hour with funding they got from federal pandemic grants, despite the fact there’s no guarantee more of that financial support is coming.

Even with the increase in pay, Nurtury recently had an applicant turn down a job offer because she could make more money handling luggage at Logan Airport.

“We talk about this as a staffing crisis,” Perille said. “It’s really a wage crisis.”

Day care workers make 40% less than teachers at public K-12 schools — and don’t get summers off, Perille said.

“I think historically the care of young children has been viewed as the responsibility of the family — and, let’s be quite frank, the responsibility of women. And when they are old enough for school, then that’s where we have a societal investment and interest in them,” she said. “Meanwhile, all of the research and all of the data shows that what we do with our youngest children sets them up for success in school and in life long term.”

The average day care teacher in Massachusetts makes $19.44 an hour, according to the state Department of Early Education and Care. And most assistants make no more than $16 an hour.

“There is a fundamentally different pay scale in child care than there is in many other sectors,” Perille said. “The commonwealth has offered to pay lifeguards $20 an hour. That’s more than many child care workers earn per hour.”

The low pay for day care workers is nothing new.

“Early educators in this commonwealth — over 30% of them — are on some form of public assistance,” said William Eddy of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care. “There’s something wrong with that.”

He says many day care centers stayed open only because of federal pandemic grants, which were designed as stopgaps in a turbulent economic moment.

“Stabilizing is so important,” he said. “But if we don’t get into how to sustain these programs, how do we find staff — qualified staff — and pay them wages that are livable, we will not be able to sustain these programs."

State Rep. Alice Peisch co-chairs the Early Education and Care Economic Reveiw Commission, which is tasked with figuring out policy approaches to make day care livable for both the children’s families and day care workers. She said the lack of day care access isn’t just a problem for the lowest-income parents who qualify for state subsidies.

“There’s also, I think, a large group that doesn’t qualify for the subsidy, but for whom the market rates are just beyond their reach,” Peisch said.

A single parent with one child who makes $45,000 a year doesn’t qualify for a state subsidy, but would have a hard time paying the nearly $21,000 a year it costs on average to have an infant in day care in Massachusetts, according to the Economic Policy Institute think tank.

“We need to also have a discussion about whether we should raise the income eligibility, and maybe do a sort of sliding scale,” Peisch said.

But making more children eligible for subsidized child care doesn’t help anybody if there aren’t enough spots for the kids who are already eligible.

The commission that Peisch chairs is working on recommendations for how to get more people to work in the field, looking at immediate and longer-term solutions. It has a deadline of the end of this calendar year, but Peisch said she’s looking to get that extended by a few months.

The whole conversation around paying for early childhood education could change significantly, Peisch said, if Congress passes the massive federal budget bill known as the Build Back Better Act.

“That has significant, significant funding for early education and care, and if that comes through, I think that will be of enormous help,” she said.

The House’s version of the Build Back Better Act, which passed in late October, would invest about $380 billion in child care and pre-K over the course of six years, with the goal of making child care free for low-income families. It would also cap day care costs at 7% of income for most other families using subsidies.

The U.S. Senate is still debating the details of its own version.

Here in Massachusetts, advocates for early childhood education are hoping what the feds ultimately come up with will go a long way toward supporting both the people working in the child care industry and the families who need them.