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Desperate to hire child-care workers during the pandemic, Nurtury Early Education has raised its hourly rate, hired a recruiter, and offered $1,000 signing bonuses — $500 up front and $500 after six months on the job.

It hasn’t been enough. Its pool of candidates has become so thin that Nurtury, the oldest child-care agency in New England, is closing one of its five centers in Greater Boston. Teachers and children from the South End location are moving into the remaining facilities, where nine classrooms sit dark and empty from the upheaval of the past 17 months.

“This is not a financial crisis. This is not an enrollment crisis. This is a staffing crisis,” said Laura Perille, Nurtury’s chief executive. “There are simply not enough available workers to maintain our classrooms.”

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Early educator Dina Gomes fed a baby in the infant room at Nurtury Early Education.
Early educator Dina Gomes fed a baby in the infant room at Nurtury Early Education. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Welcome to the next phase of the child-care crisis: Even if a center has space for your child, it may not have a teacher to care for her. Despite loosened pandemic restrictions and heightened demand from parents eager to return to the workplace, child-care directors say they can’t find enough certified employees to fully staff their centers, part of a hiring shortage felt across the US economy.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Bernadette Davidson, who has worked in early education for 50 years and now directs child-care services at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. “I can’t hire. I get resumes from people with no background in education. I even had a Buddhist monk.”

In one recent week, two teachers left her summer program, forcing her to close a classroom of 15 children, canceling care for five outright “with very little notice to parents.”

“Because I kept hoping I was going to find somebody,” she said.

New employees don’t immediately ease the staffing crunch, since state regulations require that such hires be paired with more experienced counterparts for at least three months before they lead a class.

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Child-care specialists say several factors are causing the problem, which began when centers closed at the start of the pandemic. While many reopened in late June 2020, some never recovered and shut down. Layoffs sent some workers onto unemployment, which initially increased benefits by $600 a week.

“That was huge,” said Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association, an advocacy group. “People were able to make more than they could make in their jobs. Do you blame people?”

In Massachusetts, unemployment benefits will continue to be supplemented by $300 a week until September, and some child-care providers suspect that candidates are answering ads only to keep their unemployment benefits — proof of an active job search is required to receive them — while postponing an actual job search to the fall.

But others have left the industry and show no signs of coming back. Nurtury’s centers lost 15 teachers who couldn’t find care for their own children when schools closed to the pandemic. Nicole Plummer, director of a Nurtury center in Roxbury, said one employee quit when her child’s school closed, although her two younger children had care.

“Mom had to make that decision that in order for her child to excel in school, she had to be home with her,” Plummer said.

Some left over health concerns, since their work demands close contact with children too young to be vaccinated and babies too young to wear masks. Others decided the low-paying job was no longer worth the possibility of layoffs and furloughs, said Dianna Yanez Brown, a recruiter who has worked in early education for 25 years.

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“They don’t want to have to go through that again, so they’re looking for job security,” said Yanez Brown.

With few new workers coming in, some centers reduced their hours to avoid a second shift and took other steps to stretch their resources. But scaling back hours can inconvenience parents who rush to pickup, to say nothing of unexpected weekday closures over staffing.

“When you are that thinly staffed, if one person calls out sick on any given day, we might need to close another classroom just for that day,” Perille said. ”This is happening with increasing frequency.”

It also means the work is constant. Plummer has to cover classroom teachers’ breaks two or three times every day. Administrators chaperone children when they are dropped off and picked up — a pandemic procedure used to minimize the number of people entering the building.

“We’ve just come to an increasing conclusion that this is not sustainable,” said Perille, explaining the decision to consolidate centers. “We’re not delivering the kind of service our families need and we expect. Our staff is under enormous pressure so we’re going to keep burning them out and there’s no relief externally out there on the horizon.”

Relief has been promised through various federal packages, some of which have yet to materialize. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, included funds for child-care providers, but the state Department of Early Education and Care only began accepting funding applications this month.

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Even more sweeping relief has been proposed as part of a stimulus package known as the American Families Plan. But child-care providers are wary of relying on one-time government support for future payroll.

”We can’t raise salaries because we don’t know if that money is going to continue,” said Davidson, who has instead used funding for bonuses. “You can’t raise somebody’s salary and then take it away.”

They are hopeful that the new recognition of child care as economic infrastructure — something essential for the workforce to operate — will lead to industry reforms. A group called the Common Start Coalition has launched a campaign to invest taxpayer money into child care to defray the high costs and boost workers’ notoriously low wages.

“It is the lowest paid profession of a four-year degree,” Lehnhoff said.

At the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, Davidson’s teachers start at $15 an hour. One teacher who has a master’s degree makes $17.50 an hour and is openly looking for other work. “They can’t afford rent,” Davidson said. “You cannot support yourself. This generation is coming out of school with debt and they can’t afford to be child-care teachers.”

In comparison, online ads show Dunkin’ Donuts in Burlington and Chelsea are currently hiring at up to $16 an hour.

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Since Massachusetts requires early educators to be certified and have nine months of hands-on experience in a licensed child-care center, “finding educators that have that certification and are willing to work for the salaries has always been my challenge,” said Yanez Brown. A recruiter for Horizons for Homeless Children, she is now offering wages of $18 to $25 an hour.

Even at that amount, it’s been difficult to pin down applicants. She used to have a steady flow of candidates, but now has to reach out on social media and follow up by phone.

The interview experience is a two-way test. “It’s now as much for them to be wowed by us,” she said. “It’s definitely currently a candidate’s market.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.