How to Shorten the 12,000-Child Waitlist For Military Child Care

The chair of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee wants the Pentagon to bump up pay for military child care staff, which she sees as a key factor contributing to long waitlists at military child care centers around the world. About 12,000 children were on those waitlists last year, while staff was short about 3,900 caregivers, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who estimated the number is likely higher due to families who give up on the wait list entirely.

“Think about what that means,” she said May 8 at a personnel hearing with top officials from the services and the Pentagon. “That’s more than 12,000 parents struggling to find out how to meet their military obligations when they have small children at home that need care.”

Military child development centers (CDCs) are accepting 30 percent fewer children than they could if they were fully-staffed, the senator added.

“I know there are a lot of ideas about how to improve child care access for military families, but clearly staffing up has to be the number one focus,” she said. “Hiring more people would let us increase the overall capacity literally by tens of thousands of children, if we just hire up to all of the spots we’ve got.”

The Air Force feels the problem; Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the branch’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said the Air Force has a 20 percent deficit of child care providers, which affects Airmen’s ability to do their jobs.

“The first thing you do when you get a [permanent change of station] assignment is you look at, if you have children, where are my children going to go? What is the access to child care? How do I get on the list as soon as possible,” she said. “I mean, it is mission readiness.”

But bringing more CDC workers to military bases has proven difficult. The bases are often remote and far from robust health care networks, and many parents work odd hours to meet training and operational requirements. Better pay could help. The Defense Department requested $33.5 million in its fiscal year 2025 budget request “to modernize the child care workforce,” according to budget documents, in part by redesigning child care provider compensation.

Warren applauded the move, saying that the pay scale for child care workers has not been reworked in 30 years. A report on military quality of life published last month by the House Armed Services Committee found that CDC employee wages are competitive with their civilian counterparts, but that those wages “are comparable to the average wages of workers in the food services industries and below the average wages of workers in retail industries, despite child care workers often requiring advanced training.”

The report called for paying child care workers more; standardizing benefits, such as waiving child care fees for CDC workers’ children; and studying whether hiring authorities for child care workers can be improved. 

Last month, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced a bill that would address several of those concerns and allow the Defense Department to create 12 partnerships with private and public child care centers on or near military bases. The hope is that these first-of-their-kind partnerships, along with new incentives and authorities to recruit and retain child care providers, will drive up capacity at those locations.

Investing in those community partnerships is crucial to provide flexibility for military families, Katharine Kelley, the deputy chief of space operations for human capital, said at the May 8 hearing.

“Clearly, additional top line to cover increased pay is crucial, as is taking advantage of some of the other options that are out there because the situations are so unique for individual, at least in my case, Guardians, that we want to make sure that we’ve got multiple options to try to combat this issue,” she said.

But providing those options takes money. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Glynn, the deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, said all the services would waive 100 percent of child care fees for the first child of CDC workers “if we could all afford 100 percent.” 

“And our job is to make sure you can afford 100 percent,” said Warren.

At a time where the military faces fierce competition with private industry to attract and retain service members, officials at the hearing described child care as a matter of national security.

“It is a readiness issue, and right now we are facing peer competitors that we have not seen since probably World War II and Russia, you know, during the Cold War,” Miller said. “So it is critical now.”