ST. PAUL-A bobby pin left on a bathroom counter might go unnoticed in most homes, but the tiny object sparked a larger discussion about home child care regulations in Minnesota.
For child care providers like Julie Seydel, who has been licensed in Anoka County for 14 years, a stray bobby pin could be seen as a choking hazard by state licensors and result in a $200 fine.
The pressure to meet requirements like these, Seydel said, creates an especially tense environment for her teenage daughter.
"Our job should not adversely affect our families, and it does," Seydel said. "I'll admit, I've chewed her out big when she's left something laying around, because she's got to remember it could cost me my job. What a burden to put on a 14-year-old."
A round of Minnesota legislation aims to curb the state's plummeting numbers of child care providers with changes to a working environment some providers say has become increasingly hostile and overregulated.
A report released by a legislative task force on a growing child care shortage indicated that the number of children needing child care exceed the number of child care openings in each region of the state.
The shortage is especially dire in greater Minnesota, which experienced a net loss of more than 16,000 providers between 2006 and 2015.
Rep. Mary Franson, an Alexandria Republican and former child care provider, recently chaired a House subcommittee on child care access and affordability.
"Some say that providers are leaving the field because of retirements," Franson said. "While this might be a part of the picture, it's not the whole picture. I've heard time and time again about the regulatory climate that is increasingly punitive."
Recommendations outlined in the study, as well as testimony from child care professionals served as foundations for nearly a dozen bills the subcommittee approved at its final meeting Monday, Feb. 27. The legislation now must pass other committees before reaching a full House vote.
Franson authored more than half of the bills, most of which would modify licensing and regulatory procedures.
One of her bills would change state requirements for providers to post Department of Human Services citations where parents can see them for two years.
Providers would be able to appeal to the department to remove rescinded postings, which Franson said act as "scarlet letters" to parents seeking child care.
Another bill would modify language in annual and two-year training requirements to allow providers a more flexible timeline to complete regular training and avoid training-related violations.
Providers who testified at the meeting said Franson's bill prohibiting child care correction order quotas could help stop excessive citations.
Although the Department of Human Services does not officially set quotas, Tracy Stengel, president at Minnesota Association of Child Care Professionals, said licensors have reported being told it is impossible not to find at least one violation.
"If this is how our licensors are trained, how could they not feel pressured to find violations?" Stengel asked. "There may not be a quota as in an exact number, but the expectation and pressures to find violations is there and it's growing with each passing year."
Providers also resoundingly favored a bill by Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, which would remove legislative authority to designate child care providers as state employees for purposes of unionization.
More than 1,000 providers voted, by a nearly 3-1 margin, last year against joining AFSCME, a public workers' union.
"It's demeaning that the union people feel that they can give us more of a professional manner to our business, that we need help running our business," Seydell said.
AFSCME does not plan to pursue another union vote before the legislation expires in 2017.
Although the union announced opposition to Quam's bill, Public Affairs Director Jennifer Munt said it respects providers' vote.
"We honor the mighty women who care for Minnesota's poorest children," she said. "We value their hard work and will continue to advocate for quality child care that working families can afford."
Another bill Quam introduced would establish a "fix-it ticket" system for minor citations that do not immediately endanger children. Providers would have two days to provide proof to licensing agencies that they corrected the violation.
It would also require licensing agencies to offer providers exit interviews for technical assistance.
The bill was among the subcommittee's proposals aimed at improving communication and tempering strained relationships between providers and licensors.
One would require the Department of Human Services to notify providers of any changes to any rules, regulations and federal or state laws that affect child care. Franson, the bill's author, said the law would prevent confusion and misinterpretation of the requirements.
Another bill, introduced by Rep. Peggy Flanagan, D-St. Louis Park, aims to establish a training curriculum for county licensors.
Providers who testified said licensors' interpretation of laws can often inconsistencies in how regulations are enforce.
Although Flanagan said many of Minnesota's child care regulations have helped reduce children's' injuries and death, the way they are enforced has provider's "walking on eggshells."
"One of the ways I think we can fix that is by making sure folks all have the same training so, they know the rules, the regulations, the expectations," she said. "That way, providers can feel confident that the person coming in to do an inspection is really clear on what the rules and regulations are."
Other child care bills
• HF 1583: Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, introduced a bill that would modify funding priorities for the basic sliding fee child care program. Families with at least one veteran parent, for example, would be moved from fourth to third place on the priority list. Peterson said the changes would help decrease the number of families waitlisted for money and give low-income families with working parents a higher priority.
• HF 1407: A one-time $225,000 appropriation from the general fund in 2018 would grant funding to two pilot programs offering training, mentoring, technical assistance and loans for women to establish cooperative child care businesses in low-income areas. Although the grant would be limited to the metro area, Flanagan said it could serve as a model for potential programs in greater Minnesota.