Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Illinois child care providers are getting by without a paycheck as they await delayed payments from the state.
A technical delay at the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) is holding up payments to providers who care for children of low-income families that are part of the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, designed to help parents be able to go to work or school with the help of subsidized child care.
The payment problems are particularly difficult for providers who run small day care centers, often out of their homes, and who said they don’t have reserves of money to continue that work if they’re not paid.
According to the state comptroller’s office, home care provider LaTonya Mitchell has not been paid by the state since November.
“We want to be made whole,” Mitchell said. “We demand that a hardship payment also be made to us for our late bills. We are also asking that they (IDHS) guarantee a pay date.”
Provider Debra Murphy said it’s a matter of respect.
“If they learn to give us respect,” Murphy said, “we will have everything we need because they will know in that respect we want the same things that they want when they get their check. We want to feed our families, we want to pay our bills on time, and we don’t want to incur no late fees because of what someone else didn’t do. ‘Sorry’ won’t do. I can’t tell my bill collectors ‘sorry.’”
Child care provider Tasia Barr said the delay is causing her to fall behind on her bills, including making a payment for the insurance she’s required by the state to carry in order to run a day care.
“I received a cancellation letter, saying that my day care insurance has been cancellated because I have not been able to pay my bills,” Barr said.
SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union representing Illinois child care workers, said payment delays are a recurring issue. Members want IDHS to implement a new system to prevent this from happening again.
Agency spokespeople did not answer questions, including whether IDHS is considering changing payment systems or offering hardship payments, how many individuals or day care centers are impacted by the delays, what caused the issue and how often it has been a problem.
The agency offered no specifics, instead sending a statement of apology.
“IDHS’ Division of Early Childhood is dedicating every available resource to addressing a backlog of payments to our providers that developed in the past few weeks. We have corrected the technical issue, communicated with providers, and are moving payments through the process as fast as possible,” the statement reads. “We apologize for the hardship this backlog has caused and as always, are grateful to our providers for your continued dedication to the children of Illinois.”
IDHS said the comptroller’s office has and will prioritize payments to child care providers.
A spokesman for the comptroller Tuesday said the office has no child care bills waiting to be paid out, and there is no other backlog of unpaid bills.
The issue may be on the way to resolution. According to the comptroller’s database, while Mitchell has not received any state payments since before November, Murphy received $682.88 in November, $640.70 in December and $796.14 so far in January.
Barr said if the issue is not rectified, she wants the attorney general to get involved.
While she said she’s continuing to care for children, not getting paid could have a trickle-down effect.
“Stress relief is because of child care providers,” Barr said. “Parents are stress-free because they have qualified day care providers to take their children to. I have two children here, and their parents are police officers, serving the community of Illinois. If we do not stand together and make sure that our payment system is working for the child care system, then the Illinois workers of Illinois would not be working.”
SEIU Healthcare Illinois child care providers are due to negotiate a new contract with the state.
The union’s Jessica Schwalb said she could not specify what issues will be on the bargaining table, though issues like the payment delay are sure to be used as examples of renewing investment in the child care system.
“We’ll fight in the long term to make it work for everyone because it’s clear the market has failed providers, and it has failed parents,” Schwalb said. “It’s way too expensive for parents and unsustainable for providers.”
Schwalb said many providers got out of the business during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to low reimbursement rates.
Even as some providers are complaining about reimbursement delays, Gov. J.B. Pritzker appeared to be on board with infusing more attention and funding toward child care.
At his inaugural address earlier this month, Pritzker signaled that second-term goals include expanding child care and making preschool available to all Illinois children.
“The research is clear,” Pritzker said. “Quality child care affords parents the opportunity to work or attend school and pursue greater economic security. Let’s provide more economic security for families by eliminating child care deserts and expanding child care options.”
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