JBER development centers at 50% capacity with waitlist in the hundreds

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Published: Jul. 12, 2023 at 7:24 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 13, 2023 at 6:32 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A lack of childcare providers on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson has steadily become one of Commander David Wilson’s top challenges.

Currently only four development centers on base are operating as normal. At least one is currently closed due to repairs of the building’s HVAC system, with another scheduled to close for repairs in September after the current project is completed.

“Over half our childcare spaces are left empty due to staffing,” Chief of Child and Youth Programs Heather Weafer said. “So we have 208 authorizations for childcare workers, direct care staff. And we are sitting at 58%.”

Weafer believes one of the reasons JBER is dealing with a staffing shortage is its struggles to recruit civilians.

Weafer also notes that working in the childcare industry is not easy; despite hiring incentives, a competitive wage of $18 an hour, and offering employees at the development center free daycare for one child, Weafer said they still have a turnover rate.

“When they come into the classroom, sometimes we’ll see people exit in two or three weeks, because of how hard the job is,” Weafer said.

In the meanwhile, the center faces a growing waitlist. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the development center saw 87 children needing childcare.

Since 2020, the center is seeing numbers in the high 200s — Weafer said the number ran as high as 330 as of a few months ago.

At the moment, Weafer said, the center has 35 single or dual military families who are in need of childcare space. They are family units that often do not have a support system in Alaska.

“Generally, young airmen don’t have friends in the local area, or family members that can help assist with childcare,” Weafer said.

Yet, those children are just a small fraction of the roughly 270 other kids who are currently in need of care on the list. The largest demographic on that waitlist, Weafer said, are families who have a full-time working, civilian spouse.

“A lot of our military full-time working spouse families will not see childcare in the three years they are here with the waitlist and how it has been with our staffing,” Weafer said.

This dampers quality of life for service members and their ability to do their job. Weafer says she has heard several service members question if they should leave their military career since their partner is unable to get a job due to the childcare shortage.

A shortage in childcare has been a problem Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been following.

“Well this is the problem that the base commander was sharing with me,” Murkowski said. “He’s got to look at that. He’s got to juggle that as they’re looking at who can deploy right now.”

Base commanders, according to Weafer, search for alternative ways to assist their teams. This may include offering to telework for certain units to switch shifts, as dual military families might be on an opposite work schedule than their partners. Although this is a temporary solution to the shortage to ease the struggles parents face, it can be devastating to the mission.

“This is hard on the parents and the families, but it’s also hard on the commanders as they try and determine, ‘How do we execute this mission here?” Murkowski said.

Murkowski said childcare, just like mental health services, is critical in both the overall mission and individual mission of service members to ensure they can do their best in duty and maintain a healthy life outside of uniform.

“We have to make sure that our military families know that their kids are in good places when they need childcare,” Murkowski said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the closure of one of the child development centers is due to repairs, not short staffing.