BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Tuesday he wants to use federal coronavirus relief money to increase day care capacity to help alleviate the state’s worker shortage.
The Republican governor, in a speech about the future of work that was followed by several questions, said expanding day care could help get more workers back in the workforce.
Idaho’s current unemployment rate of 2.9% puts the state back at pre-pandemic levels last seen in early 2020, a span that includes a period of double-digit unemployment as COVID-19 spread and jobs evaporated. But now, many employers can’t find enough workers.
“We know part of that is parents who are staying home,” Little said. “We think we can take some onetime money and build some (day care) capacity.”
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor said last week that the unemployment rate last month dropped from 5.2% to 4.8%. Officials said 194,000 people found work, a tepid number and evidence that the pandemic remained a problem, with many companies struggling to fill millions of open jobs.
Idaho has had problems with the highly contagious delta variant, with the state currently on crisis standards of care due to so many unvaccinated patients filling hospitals. Crisis care standards mean that scarce resources such as ICU beds will be allotted to the patients most likely to survive.
Idaho is one of the least vaccinated U.S. states. Little, who has been vaccinated, has consistently asked residents get vaccinated too, among other things, help the state's economy improve.
The council that held Tuesday's event is an independent office of the governor created by former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter in 2017 to find statewide strategies to help businesses succeed. Lack of workers was a primary topic among the day's speakers.
“It’s a common hymn that I hear from everybody in the workforce,” said Little, noting that he’s had a series of roundtables around the state with business leaders. “We see this all over.”
Little didn’t offer any numbers on his plan. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has requested $100 million in its 2022 budget for existing child care providers. The money to expand day care capacity would come from Idaho's share of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, said details about the plan will be revealed when the governor gives his state of the state speech to lawmakers in early January.
“Nationwide, statistics show that the pandemic had a huge effect on women in the workforce, and families are a priority for the governor,” she said.
Specifically, Little said he'd like to get the state's workforce participation rate higher. The rate is comprised of those 16 years and older working or looking for work. Little noted Idaho's rate in 1998 was over 71%, but it's now dropped to 62.5%, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
“If we want to get the participation rate up, (day care) is something we're going have to address,” he said.
It's not clear how lawmakers will receive an initiative to increase day care capacity. House Republicans earlier this year killed a federal $6 million early childhood learning grant. Republican Rep. Charlie Shepherd argued against using the money made available by the Trump administration because he was against anything that made "it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child."
He later apologized for the comment but declined to change his vote, and an attempt to get another vote on the legislation failed.