Structural Solutions to Sustaining Your Workforce

One year ago, Laura Perille came on the show. She talked to us about struggling to maintain staffing for her early childhood education centers. Her approach was bold, a little risky, and took a structural approach. This week, she’s back with an update.


0:02 Pieta Blakely

One year ago, Laura Perille came on the show and she talked to us about the challenge of maintaining staffing in her early childhood education centers. Her approach was bold, a little risky and took a structural approach. This week, she’s back with updates.

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0:45 Pieta Blakely

Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds, a 30-minute conversation with and for leaders of mission based organizations. I want to welcome our listeners in the USA, Australia and around the globe. While you’re here, please introduce yourself in the comments and let us know your name and where you’re from.

I’m Pieta Blakely and you’re watching Coffee Time. Laura Perille is the president and CEO of Nurtury early education, and not for profit childcare organization that serves over 1000 children and families in Greater Boston. Last year, she came on our show to talk about the strategies that she was employing to support her workers. And she’s back today with updates. Welcome, Laura. And welcome, Cynthia. Good morning.

1:27 Laura Perrile

Good morning. Great to be here.

1:29 Pieta Blakely 

It’s good to know. So, I thought this was a COVID era problem that so many organizations were really struggling just to have enough workers, right to provide the services. It wasn’t a COVID era problem, or continues to be a problem, especially in fields like early childhood education. Talk a little bit about that.

1:55 Laura Perille

Well, you’re exactly right. I think what’s important to remember is that the Early Childhood sector in the career field was broken before the pandemic, in terms of being an incredibly underpaid field. And when I say underpaid, and under invested in publicly, which then means that early childhood programs struggle to pay their staff, livable, and competitive wages. And families struggle with affordability for childcare.

So, the solution is not raising prices or raising rates as you might in other businesses and sectors because we then have families who are increasingly priced out of adequate care for their children. So the long term solution would be to invest in early care education in the way that we do early care education. But that’s not where we are right now. Where we are right now is that a very limited amount of public funding goes into the programs serving the highest needs and lowest income families.

And those rates are generally 20 to 30% below what the private market or you know, private pay families might be able to pay. So we were already in a terrible place. And then the pandemic came and what happened, everybody else stayed home, and everyone bagged childcare to still show up and care for the children of essential workers. So that sort of set the stage for if we thought it was bad before, when you pile on three years of working in a pandemic, you know, in direct contact with children and families and physically showing up for work every day. And then you look at wages and other sectors. I don’t think we should be terribly surprised that there is a workforce staffing crisis that is actually more severe now than it was even in the early days of the pandemic.

4:03 Pieta Blakely

And as you said, the knockon effects part of the staffing crisis in every other field has to do with childcare. Right? We’ve talked about the huge number of women in particular, who are missing from the workforce, and that a big part of that is lack of access to appropriate or reliable or affordable childcare.

4:24 Laura Perrile


4:26 Pieta Blakely

Yeah. So a year ago, you had an opportunity to increase wages, right out of some short-term money. And you did that, which was a bold choice. So we wanted to have you back here then what happened?

4:43 Laura Perrile

Yes, so it was a bold choice. And I’m happy to say that we’re still here. So that’s, you know, that’s the first marker

04:50 Pieta Blakely


4:51 Laura Perille

You Know what

4:53 Pieta Blakely

Relax, but that is not an insignificant accomplishment.

4:58 Laura Perrile 

Right. Thank you. And it’s really a testament to the commitment of our workforce and our educators and our staff both in and outside the classroom, you know, want to do this work if we can support them appropriately and fund them equitably, so that they can take care of their own families while doing the work that some of them are called to, and really love to do with children.

But if we make it impossible for them to do that work and manage their own lives and support their own families, then that’s what leads to the challenges we’re in. So the good news is that as a result of the pandemic, there was a lot more attention in advocacy around the need for increased investment in childcare simply because nobody else’s employees were able to show up if we couldn’t keep our place.

And I think that really shifted the conversation. So there was a lot of stimulus and relief money initially. But the challenge with short term funding is it’s often very risky to raise wages with short term funding, if you can’t guarantee that funding will be around. Normally, that’s a no no, in the nonprofit space, you just don’t do that. We chose to do it and double down on our advocacy work in collaboration with many others in the field.

Because as we concluded, if we didn’t increase wages with those short term funds, we might not have a workforce, one year down the line, or two years down the line, or however long it took for a substantial increase in public investments. So we, we rolled the dice, we increased wages $1 an hour for everyone, in addition to our annual cost of living increases, we increased hiring bonuses. And then we worked very hard. And we’re delighted to say that even though the federal build back better effort to increase public investment in child care stalled, at least here in Massachusetts, the legislature really stepped up and significantly increased public funding, both for the programs who serve children with subsidies, they also added in new public investment for all programs, statewide.

And so that doesn’t get us everywhere. But it’s increased sustainable funding. And so now we could mix that sustainable funding with continued short-term money and roll the dice again, which is what we’ve done, and we have increased wages again, this past summer and fall, raising our minimum wage from 16 to 18 an hour, and increasing all staff wages by another 5%, which is higher than the 3%, we generally do annually. And then I’ll stop there. That’s the base rate.

8:11 Cynthia Rojas

This is what makes what you did such a bold move, right? You did it really, as a leader, you had to take a risk. And you did, without having the policies without necessarily having the long term funding. And yet the advocacy and the policy followed, and we want to acknowledge that Massachusetts continues to be the front runner in many, many things. And this is one of them, where the policies are really looking at how best to help this sector. And in the long run, help working parents. But I just want to acknowledge that was a bold move. It really really was, at a time where it felt like the world was ending. You were really looking at it from a different perspective.

9:07 Pieta Blakley

I felt like there was this real tension there were people making decisions out of the existing frameworks, right? Who would say you just can’t do that? It’s against the rules. And then there was the sense of the world is ending and maybe the rules shouldn’t apply, right? Like if we don’t do it now, we’re not going to have this problem to solve next year. Right. Yeah. Another other thing that I saw in organizations was, you know, the in between solution is bonuses. And I will have to talk a lot about how to use that. But what I was hearing was workers didn’t care about a bonus that was not very valued.

9:49 Laura Perrile

Well, I think you know, the thing about one time bonuses is they are one time and so depending on how big they are, they provide a nice little boost. It’s a very personal and immediate recognition, but taxes still come out of bonuses. And, you know, but you don’t see it forever on your paycheck. And so, but it is a strategy when you’re balancing long term and short term and you can’t do everything you want in a sustainable, you know, permanent wage increase. So we actually did both.

So, in addition to those permanent wage adjustments that I discussed, which raised our base pay, raised our average pay, we couldn’t go quite as far as we wanted. So we also added in a bonus of $1500 appreciation bonus for all of our staff. And so together that really boosted income, and at least the bulk of it was in a permanent wage increase. So I think there’s a role for both of those, and for looking at other strategies as well.

10:55 Cynthia Rojas

These things matter. Someone told me and I hope I have the company right? That Chick-Fil- A is offering its staff a three-day work week, or maybe a four-day work week, and they can’t handle the number of applications that they’re receiving. And I can imagine what this is doing both to your retention, but also interest in working for Nurtury

11:21 Laura Perille

So I think, you know, we continue to struggle with the dimensions of the staffing crisis in child care. And, you know, I just read an article in the Washington Post today that says the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 100,000 workers were out of work last month due to child care, and that’s the highest level it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic.

So to your earlier intro Pieta, this is clearly a problem that’s going to stay with us. And so, and we too continue to, we both lose workers, they’re exhausted, they have family issues, they go to higher paying fields, they’re hired by the public schools that have a better schedule, and can pay even more than we can. And even while we are hiring people, we continue to lose ground. It’s one of the reasons that investing in everyone we have is important, even while we’re trying to do more things to bring more people into our strongest workforce, the people already working for us. And so we got to do both. focus on recruitment and retention. But we still have closed classrooms. And so we still have work. And so many of our peers, you know, we’re all struggling. And so we need to continue to push that.

12:50 Pieta Blakely 

And that’s really been part of the cycle, that organizations don’t have enough staff to run their programs, right, especially early childhood or other things where you’ve got to maintain ratios of staff to program participants, so they don’t receive as much funding. And so they can’t hire more staff, and they get stuck in that spiral.

13:14 Cynthia Rojas

And it’s a huge ripple effect happening here. I mean, I’m still struck by the 100,000 people in the month of October that could not go to work, and how then that affects those companies. And it could affect the reputation and the perception of the person taking long.

13:34 Pieta Blakely

I read an article—skipped an article—read is an overstatement, but the article was that this retailer wasn’t sure they would survive the Christmas season, because their staff was so unreliable. Right? And, you know, they were sort of blaming the staff and saying that the staff was ghosting and things like that. But my suspicion is there are underlying causes, like, kids getting sick and lack of reliable childcare and unpredictable schedules and things like that, that are making it hard for that person to go to that job. And to your point Cynthia, threatening that establishment, continued existence, right?

14:19 Laura Perrile  

And it is, I mean, to this issue of workforce losses, we continue to have to keep classrooms closed due to lack of sufficient staffing and coverage ratios. And even when they’re open, they’re just barely appropriately staffed. So if someone calls out sick, we may have to close that individual classroom for a couple of days until that teacher has recovered. And I’ll remind people that, you know, whatever you think about whether the pandemic is over or not, most of those of us who are in direct care, we’re not just in a pandemic. We’re now in a tripledemic. Then we have RSV, we have flu, we have COVID. So, we’re seeing the same kinds of challenges. And you know, but now it could be any one of three health issues that keep children and families, and our educators out on any given day. Yeah.

15:22 Pieta Blakley

So, to return to Cynthia’s point about time and scheduling, right? This is another conversation that I’ve been seeing, right?  things like four day work weeks, which in the nine to five sphere, I think is going to be standard soon, right? We’re just going to work Monday through Thursday. We talked to somebody this week, who told us about a factory that was creating a nine to two shift, because from a technical perspective, there’s no reason that there isn’t an attitude shift. And that’s a shift that a lot of parents could work, right, where their existing shifts don’t work. 

15:58 Cynthia Rojas

Are you going to take it? We also, you know, have a huge aging population, and people are taking care of their parents or their caretakers.

16:05 Pieta Blakely

Right. Right. But Laura, you know, you pointed out some, some limitations with that?

16:13 Laura Perrile  

Well, it is, I do think time, you know, when we look at what stresses staff, and I think that’s also a really important thing is to, you know, keep one’s ear to the ground about what would support staff better, we’re talking a lot about compensation. We’re also focusing on in classroom support, professional development, and training. You know, there are a lot of behavioral health issues in classrooms, making sure we’re putting more expertise and support to make their day to day jobs less stressful.

But then the third category is time, you know, and here childcare and everyone in the caregiving economy, from elders to developmentally challenged and all kinds of other populations, it’s hard to do that work, you certainly can’t do it virtually. And if you go with a flex schedule, you then need to find twice as many people. Right, right, because the needs don’t change, we still have to keep our childcare centers open for 10 hours.

So, if we have five-hour shifts, we now need two people to do that work. And so it could be possible, but it’s going to take a lot of I think analysis, and creative thinking and some risk taking to go to your earlier point. But we’re looking at all those different ways, one of the things that we’ve been able to do here, and I really want to give a kudos to the Department of Early Education and Care in Massachusetts, and also to providers like Nurtury who advocated hard.

They are allowing programs to close for the entire week of December, the December holidays between Christmas and New Years. And that means they’re paying for extra days over their maximum limit of what they normally allow us to close for regular holidays and professional development. So that allows us. that started during the pandemic, they’ve done it now three years running.

I hope they continue it. As soon as they said it was allowed. Again, we leaped on that. and went through all the steps of notifying families and we know it again, it’s harder on families, that’s three more days and our centers are not open. But historically, we know that that’s a low attendance week. We also know that from a public health perspective, it’s why this began, when you got a lot of holidays on back to back weekends. your chances have a lot of exposure in that image.

18:55 Pieta Blakely

We have a lot of people who travel, to see families in a different city, and that all care centers.

19:01 Laura Perrile

Exactly. That’s where it started. And it still continues to be an issue and then just workforce exhaustion. And so that’s another thing to look at is are there more times when you know, yes, it’s hard on families if we close, but it’s also hard if we call them in a morning and say, Guess what, your child’s room is closed today. So really balancing the needs of families and workforce  recognizes that none of this is ideal, but a little more time is often or a lot more time if you know what we’re hearing from educators and our staff that that would also reduce strain.

19:44 Pieta Blakely

Yeah. I mean, you sit in this position. We’ve talked so much on this show about self care, structural care, community care, right? You’re in this position. And this is not your fault. This is a policy failure. Right, where you are adding some structural care for your teachers, it can be perceived as you’re taking away some structural care from the families, right? who rely on that childcare. And the reason that I say this is a policy failure is that the childcare center itself, can’t provide enough funding, can’t provide enough staff, can’t provide all of the support and all of the care that kids need, right. And the risk tends to go to the most vulnerable individual in the story. And so it’s the individual teachers who end up stressed, overworked and exhausted by that situation, right?

20:41 Laura Perrile 

Correct. I mean, one of the untold stories of how childcare has survived, even as much as we struggle, is that a number of our teachers are working extra shifts, and let’s keep in mind, these are often educators and staff who already have second jobs because of the low pay and childcare. And then they’re working a longer shift. And it doesn’t matter, you know, whether or not we’re paying time and a half or increasing, it doesn’t matter when they can pick up their own children, or they come home too exhausted to engage the way they want. So it is in no one’s best interest to continue. And childcare has always, you know, balanced the needs of employers and families on the back of its educators and its workforce. And that what we know now is we just can’t keep doing that, and we shouldn’t have been doing it before. But we definitely can’t be doing it now. It’s not workable.

21:43 Pieta Blakely

So, what is next, Laura? Where’s the field going from here?

21:49 Laura Perrile

Well, I think you know, I think next is continuing to keep the sustained conversation around. Increased levels of, of public investment, quite frankly, that has to continue to be part of it. So you know, here in Massachusetts, or other states, like New Mexico has done something very interesting, both around Family Access and payments to programs. So if we keep doing things like that, we can continue to move the bar responsibly and sustainably.

I know that municipal and state leaders are paying attention to this mayor Who is here in Boston recently used some of her federal upper money to reinvest in the childcare workforce, and to put money into wages, which is very unusual for a city. Again, that’s short term funding, but every little bit helps. So I think it’s pushing on the big policy investments, continuing to take advantage of any short term opportunities to weave multiple funding streams, including philanthropy, but that can’t be the sole focus. It does take good business management.

And then I think we really need to push the envelope around at least analyzing problem solving and doing some creative thinking around what could be possible around time and scheduling. We don’t have any answer, but we know that is one of the question areas. So we’ve been sort of uniformly focused on compensation.

But now we’re also looking at what are the other elements of support that we can weave together that increase the stickiness, you know, of the relationship between any employer or employee. make it possible for people who want to work with children to actually do that work in a sustainable way? So I think, you know, we don’t, we don’t have it all figured out by a longshot. And we learn from our peers all the time. But I think those are some of the playing pieces that we need to work with.

23:55 Cynthia Rojas

I wonder, so Coffee Time is going to have a series of shows in early 2023. On board members. And I just wonder, what has been the reaction of your board of directors in all these changes?

24:11 Laura Perrile

I’m so glad you asked that question, Cynthia, because they’ve really been partners in this work, and we’re very, very grateful. But, you know, we couldn’t make it and so has our senior team. They have all been players in this and we, you know, are doing all the listening, we can and then we go back and work the numbers and see what’s possible. But we’ve been having this conversation with our board, they see what’s happening to the workforce, they see the closures, they see the retention numbers and the difficulty of hiring.

And so, they approved, you know, that bold move that you were talking about back in the fall, summer and fall of 2021 and they’ve approved every step of what we’ve done since then, or we wouldn’t be doing it. You know, your board has to approve these kinds of big moves. But they really understand that the game is all about the workforce. You know, childcare always focuses on quality, which is incredibly important. The only way you deliver quality is through your workforce in a direct care sector. And so, they are not even intertwined, they are nearly Well, you can’t do one without the other. And I think we’ve really worked hard to make sure we bring data and information to the board so that they’re feeling and seeing what we understand as a senior team. And then you have a common framework for decision making.

25:43 Cynthia Rojas

I love that, I love that. And you need your board behind you, you really do, especially you as a leader, I mean, you’re enacting a lot of change. And so you hold it, for many, many people, you’re holding it for your staff, you’re holding it for the parents, they use yours, you’re holding it for the legislators, you’re holding a lot. So I’m glad that your board is supporting you in this work.

26:08 Laura Perrile

I know they’ve been terrific. And I’m glad you’re pulling that element into it. Because we can’t do, you know, no senior team management team executive director can do these kinds of things, unless their board is with them. And that takes work. You know, you have to share information and engage people in that decision making but it does pay off and I’m grateful that they really have leaned into this with our team.

26:39 Pieta Blakely

And they get it that you’re one of the things that we’ve learned, we’ve now been interviewing people about leading organizations through COVID for two and a half years, right? And one of the things that we have learned was, the most important thing is for leaders to take decisive action. It’s more important to be right. it’s okay to be decisive and then change your mind.

It’s not okay to hesitate and defer and not take the leap. Right? So I think what we’re seeing in this case was that it was risky, and your organization was very willing to take a bigger picture, right? I think a lot of organizations were, we were isolated, it was an isolating time, we literally didn’t go places and see other people.

But I think some organizations missed that whatever they were going through everybody else in the field was going through, right. And if they couldn’t get enough workers, none of their neighbors had enough workers. And that this wasn’t a problem with the workers if it was a structural, environmental landscape level issue. Right.?That was the kind of thinking required?

27:51 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. it a bit creative

27:53 Laura Perille

Well, as it turns out, since I arrived in Nurtury seven weeks before the pandemic outbreak, I only know this work in the pandemic. And so I don’t know why. But I don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing. But I appreciate you know, what you’re saying there? I will say it gives me a little more encouragement to roll the dice, because occasionally it won’t work out. It is absolutely true. But I think we do, you know, we all need to take a problem-solving approach to this work when we know that what we’ve been doing is not working any longer.

28:30 Pieta Blakely

Yeah. And I think that that is the hidden blessing. And all of this is that there were a lot of systems that didn’t really work, right, where a lot of business plans and business models that didn’t really work and workers were holding it together. Right. And we got to a point where the workers couldn’t do that. And I wouldn’t do it anymore. And it revealed all of the flaws in the system. Right? And it’s really uncomfortable right now. But I think in the long term, it’s better. Right?

29:04 Laura Perrile

Well, it’s a lovely note to end on. Because at the end of the day, you know, all of the frontline work is about the people who choose to care for other people’s children, other people’s parents, for other people’s ill family members. And, you know, it’s incredibly selfless work. It’s also really hard work.

You know, if I’m not in a classroom with 24 year olds, it’s very hard work. And so keeping them keeping that front and center it, you know, I think we all would agree it’s also the most important work it’s the future generation. It’s the loved ones who can’t care for themselves at either end of the age spectrum. And so really centering their commitment and sacrifice and making sure that we make this possible for them to do that magical work with children. So.

30:00 Cynthia Rojas

Yes,yes great note to end on thank you so much Laura

30:06 Laura Perille

Well thank you both

30:09 Pieta Blakley

Great to see you have a great weekend everybody

30:11 Cynthia Rojas

Have a great weekend. Bye

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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