California child care providers waiting for state reimbursement struggle to pay bills

Millions of families rely on child care so they can afford to live in the Bay Area, but many parents may not know that some childcare providers are living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes don’t have a consistent income.

Joanna Guillory-Looney opened “JoJo’s Little Looneys Daycare” a year and a half ago in Antioch. She’s one of thousands of people across the state who run a daycare out of their home and is considered an in-home provider.

“This has been my number one dream since I was a little kid,” she said. “Everyone thinks it’s money, money, money in childcare and it’s not. It’s more love, love, love.”

Some families of the children she cares for receive government assistance for daycare services through an alternative payment program. Guillory-Looney gets paid by the state of California at least a month after she provides proof of services for those kids.

Last month, she and some other providers in Contra Costa County got their checks even later than that due to a paperwork discrepancy.

“We depend on these payments to make a living,” she said. “First instinct is panic. I have a family to raise. I have a family to feed. Yeah there is other money coming in, but just like anybody you budget according to your paydays.”

Her complaints come at a time when California is facing a critical shortage of child care providers, who are also struggling to afford exorbitant rents and cost of living increases across the Bay Area.

And Guillory-Looney is not alone.

Karri Sangimino, another in-home daycare provider in Antioch, is also frustrated with delayed or inconsistent payments. She has been in business for 12 years.

“Now we’re in January and it already happened the first time, the first month of the year,” Sangimino said of the delayed payment.

Sangimino said 9 out of the 12 kids she cares for are on government subsidies through different benefit programs like an alternative payment program, or CalWORKS. She said sometimes those payments can arrive at different times each month.

“If your income is 80 to 90% subsidy, that would be a problem for anybody,” Sangimino said. “My mortgage has been late and I’ve gotten a $50 late fee because I’m waiting for all this money.”

The state’s system is complicated because of the high level of accountability. State agencies want to make sure they are paying out public funds to daycares for work that is actually being done.

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The Department of Education pays out funds for an alternative payment program that pays for all or part of a child care expenses depending if the parent(s) work, seeks work or attends school, among other qualifications. The Department of Social Services distributes payments through CalWORKS for families that are transitioning off cash aid or welfare assistance. The Welfare-to-Work plan under CalWORKS, for instance, pays for all or part of child care expenses for parents who are employed or attend school.

But due to various reasons, payments can be delayed, such as a parent not signing off on paperwork showing proof of provider care or turning in their paperwork late. That in turn can cause delays for providers to receive money that is owed to them.

“I just want them to think about, what if you were promised a pay day? And you waited all month and it didn’t arrive until two weeks later,” Sangimino said.

John Jones is Executive Director of the non-profit organization CocoKids. It’s one of many organizations that distributes state funds to providers who care for children on alternative payment programs.

Jones said late last year the agency needed to correct a report to the Department of Education on estimates for provider payments. That correction delayed January’s payments to local providers like Guillory-Looney and Sangimino.

“We communicate as much as we can,” Jones said.

He noted that emails were sent out to providers to warn of the delayed payment. He also said the organization had to dip into their own reserves to make payments to some of the neediest providers first, until CocoKids received the funds from the state.

Jones said delays can also happen at the end of the state’s fiscal year every summer. KTVU asked the state about those delays. A spokesman for the Department of Education did not respond to that specific question, but said January and February’s payments to CocoKids were processed and sent out on time.

As of now, Jones said enough funding has been received to avoid a similar problem in the future.

“These issues come up statewide,” Jones said. “We’re not the only alternative payment program or resource referral agency that has to address issues like these.”

Providers told us they don’t care where the bottleneck happened, they just need to get paid on time to keep their doors open for more than just themselves.

“If you’re doing it just for the money, you need to close your doors, you know, because you’re not going to get rich off this business,” Sangimino said. “A lot of us providers, we’re not doing it for the wrong reasons, we’re doing it for the right reasons. When we’re having a hardship to pay our mortgage or other bills, that’s when providers start to think for the wrong reason I have to close my door because I can’t afford to do this.”

Some providers have been forced to closed, which can have a major ripple effect on parents.

“They lose their job, they can’t live anywhere. They can’t live anywhere, the kids and the parents are on the streets,” Guillory-Looney said.

Some relief may be on the way for providers in Contra Costa County, but it could take a while.

Rebecca Darnell, Deputy Director of the Workforce Services Bureau in Contra Costa County’s Employment and Human Services Department, said the county is currently implementing recent child care policy changes that will assist in the streamlining of child care for eligible CalWORKS/Welfare-to-Work recipients.

Part of a statement reads:

“This will improve access to child care, simplify the determination of approved hours as well as minimize the disruption in provider payments.”

The state of California, which currently sends checks through the U.S. mail, said it is working on upgrades. Electronic payments may not come until after the year 2022.

In the meantime, Guillory-Looney is working a second job at night, delivering for Instacart, to make ends meet.

“I don’t care what I have to do. I’m staying open because these kids need me,” she said. “We do this for the love of these kids.”