BOSTON — Senate Democrats unveiled a new proposal last Thursday aimed at expanding access to child care options for parents while attracting and retaining new workers to ease chronic staffing shortages in the industry.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who unveiled the plan with other lawmakers, said parents are struggling to find reliable and affordable child care as many providers face challenges staying afloat amid the ongoing economic fallout of the pandemic and worker shortages.

“Stable, high-quality early education helps young children to develop stronger communication, social and cognitive skills,” Spilka told reporters at a Thursday briefing. “But for far too many Massachusetts families, it remains out of reach.”

A key plank of the proposal, which is expected to be taken up by the Senate this Thursday, calls for expanding eligibility for subsidized child care by doubling the income level to qualify for state-backed programs.

The current threshold is 50% of state median income for a family of four — which is about $65,600 annually. The Senate plan calls for “gradually” increasing that level to 125% of state median income, or $164,065 for a four-member family.

Other key parts of the proposal would make it easier for providers to offer scholarships and discounted tuition for private child care services, require the state Department of Early Education and Care to review parent fees for subsidized care every five years to ensure the costs are affordable.

To help providers, the Senate plan calls for making operational grants that help subsidize child care programs permanent, require the state to calculate subsidy rates based on quarterly enrollment data, not daily attendance, and prioritize the filling of vacancies in the child care industry.

Backers of the proposal note the legislation doesn’t include funding for the child care expansion, or a price tag for implementing the plan over several years, but said the first year of implementation would be “fully funded” under provisions in the $50 billion state budget for next fiscal year.

“We recognize this is not something we can do overnight,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, a primary sponsor of the bill. “Much like the Student Opportunity Act, we expect if the bill is passed into law, the Legislature would deliver on this over time.”

Many child care centers are financially strained after reopening after being shut down in 2020 to prevent spread of COVID-19, and advocates say low compensation and the rising costs of caring for children are putting some providers out of business.

Meanwhile, care providers are struggling to retain workers in an industry where the pay is traditionally low and the risk of getting sick is now elevated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say.

The lack of child care options in Massachusetts is costing families, some of whom are spending 20% to 40% of their annual income on programs.

The average cost of child care is more than $20,000 a year in Massachusetts, the most expensive state in the nation, only behind Washington, D.C., and well above the national average of $15,888, according to a recent report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Working families are losing an estimated $1.7 million a year in lost wages from not being able to show up for work because they can’t find or afford child care services, the report noted.

Meanwhile, employers are losing an estimated $812 million a year in productivity and worker turnover because of the shortage of child care options, according to the report, while the state government is missing out on $188 million a year in tax revenue.

Compounding the lack of options are changes in the workforce and other factors that have seen fewer people looking to work in the child care industry.

The report cited data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showing that 63.4% of parents miss roughly 14 days of work a year due to child care issues. In Massachusetts, that translates into $457 million in lost earnings for about 112,000 wage workers with children age 5 and younger.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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