SEATTLE — Even before Tricia Schalekamp knew the baby growing inside her was a boy, she embarked on the search for child care with urgency and intensity.
She visited two dozen centers in the Seattle area, created spreadsheets with notes, and paid at least $500 in nonrefundable waiting list fees.
In the end, she was not offered a coveted spot at most of the places advertising child-care services for kids 5 and younger. And now, a decade later, Schalekamp doesn’t expect to see that money again.
With demand for high-quality preschools seemingly insatiable yet supply starkly limited in America’s most expensive cities, that money-back-not-guaranteed caveat is becoming routine — and exacerbating the already grueling search for day-care services for many working parents.
Those who can afford care costing an average of about $2,000 a month per child rarely quibble over a $100 fee here and there. Many eventually get their kids into a child-care program, while others make due by patching up nanny hours, hiring live-in au pairs, and relying on family members.
Yet the situation illustrates just how much power US child-care centers currently wield, said Elise Gould, an economist at the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute.
‘‘They can have hundreds of people on their waiting list but never give them anything?’’ Gould said. ‘‘That’s a screwy incentive system.’’
Schalekamp remembers crying after a day-care tour, thinking she would never find a place for her child, now a third grader. She counts herself lucky that she eventually found care but remains peeved by one $200 fee in particular.
‘‘There’s no chance of getting in, but why didn’t they tell me that? There’s zero transparency,’’ said Schalekamp, 44, who works in product development and went on to have a second son, now 6.
A spokeswoman with the Washington state attorney general’s office said she was unaware of any such issues being reported but that anyone feeling defrauded should file a complaint.
In the other worlds of coveted wait lists, neither national college nor restaurant industry leaders reported such fees as being common in their fields. The Better Business Bureau said it doesn’t keep data specific to waiting list complaints.
Many child-care centers already price out a large population of families with tuition rivaling that of elite universities. So for those searching in this expensive market, the fees are largely accepted and generally considered a deposit for future enrollment, though services are never guaranteed.
Day-care administrators say they’re merely weeding out unserious applicants knowing parents try to get on as many lists as possible to secure even one spot. They also say the money in their low-profit, low-wage business helps manage the hours it takes to answer questions, give tours, and process enrollment paperwork.
Ann Marie Robinson, admissions coordinator for the Kiddie University child-care centers near the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., said an estimated 50 percent of families who pay the $100 nonrefundable wait-list fee end up enrolling. She’s never heard of any complaints given that it’s common practice in her region. The popular day-care business currently has more than 200 people on wait lists for 40 infant spots.
‘‘We inform our clients on what to expect and let them know it’s not a guarantee that you’ll definitely get in,’’ Robinson said.
The driving force behind the child-care supply problem is the lack of workers.
For years, the child-care and preschool industry has been trying to address its high turnover rate, which nears 50 percent. But even increasing wages nationally by 13 percent between 2014 and 2017 — to a median $22,290 annually — has not stopped the loss of talent. It’s a tough, labor-intensive job to get people to do for such low wages, so the pool of US child-care workers in the same period lost 3.5 percent of its workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meanwhile, the demand for high-quality early education programs continues to rise.
Informed by the growing body of brain development research showing that children who attend good preschools go on to become adults with higher incomes and healthier lifestyles, political momentum has shifted in favor of government-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs that now flourish in the same cities where the child-care supply crisis is most acute. This month, the world’s richest man — Seattle-based Amazon.com boss Jeff Bezos — announced his first major philanthropic project will be dedicated to funding free preschools in low-income communities.
Jenny Cimbalnik, director of Seattle’s Wallingford Child Care Center, said parents occasionally express concern about the center’s fee but largely accept it as par for the course. Her center is so popular, it even has a waiting list for its free monthly tours. Cimbalnik said most families eventually are offered a spot, but she acknowledged the wait itself can force parents to make other arrangements.
‘‘I sympathize for that. I, too, don’t ever want to take money from families without being able to promise them a spot,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s unfortunate that there’s not enough care for everyone to get in where they want, or at least somewhere.’’
Camille Leganza is one of those parents who said she has yet to make it off Wallingford’s wait list. She gave in to the $50 fee in 2014 while pregnant with her now-3-year-old daughter, paying up alongside about 40 other people on her tour. The fee has since gone up, to $75.
‘‘It’s like an extra source of income that’s very shady,’’ said Leganza, a 42-year-old recruiter.