The U.S. military is struggling to provide child care to its service members in Alaska, which is directly affecting operations and putting a strain on those serving in uniform.
Alaska child care providers have reported that the system statewide is in crisis, with long waitlists, low wages and high enrollment costs. While most of the child care challenges facing the military in Alaska are similar to those in the civilian world, some are unique.
Across the country, finding affordable and accessible child care has been a longstanding challenge for military families. U.S. Air Force Col. David Wilson, commander of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, said that child care is his “No. 1 challenge.”
There are 279 children currently on the base’s child care waitlist. Placements are prioritized for single-parent military families, who are active-duty service members who have children and are not married. The second highest priority is for dual military families — where both the mother and father are in uniform.
Members of the military in Alaska say that they sometimes have to stay home to look after their children when child care is not available. Wilson and officers at other Alaska military installations say that civilian spouses are often forced to give up their jobs or scale back time at work to watch their kids, so their spouse can report for duty. Many service members in Alaska are far from home, without family to provide support.
JBER is on a critically important strategic perch on top of the globe, with anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere reachable within around nine hours, Wilson said. The base’s global mobilization machine is always on. Aircraft are always at the ready and filled with fuel. Soldiers and airmen must be prepared for sudden deployments.
“When you are an on-call aviator who has to respond with no notice to Russian long-range aviation, you’ve got to have dependable child care,” Wilson said.
The size of JBER’s child care waitlist starts to leave a gaping hole in the base’s military readiness, he added, affecting who can be readily deployed.
“I may go, ‘OK, well, I can’t deploy your spouse now, so your spouse has to stay home — because I know you’ve got kids and somebody’s got to watch those kids.’ So you can see how that just cut into my military capability because of my inability to provide child care,” he said.
A burden on military families
Senior Master Sgt. Fred Sarten and Master Sgt. Sarah Sarten are husband and wife, originally from Michigan and North Carolina. Both are active-duty members of the 673rd Air Base Wing, serving in the Logistics Readiness Squadron at JBER.
He has served for 21 years and receives, stores and issues fuel for all the aircraft on base. She has served 17 years and is in charge of squadron assignments and some military construction projects.
In December 2021, the Sarten family found out they were expecting their fifth child and rushed to join the base’s child care waitlist. It took almost 16 months to get a spot.
Child care on base is subsidized. Service members can get help paying for care out in the community when on-base care is not available, but it remains expensive.
While waiting for a spot to open up on base, the Sartens sent their infant son Finley to a child care center in Palmer, which they said cost $1,100 a month and did not provide food to their son, or a sense of security.
”They make sure that he’s not choking and that the diapers are changed, but beyond that, that was pretty much it,” Fred Sarten said.
Both of the Sartens reported having their attention pulled away while working at JBER, worrying about their son. There are temporary duty assignments that can go on for weeks at a time, which creates an additional juggling act for those serving in uniform, they said.
“If we weren’t able to find child care, we would have had to work separate shifts, so somebody would be home with the baby,” Sarah Sarten said.
Across military bases in Alaska, there are similar reports of child care shortages and military parents struggling.
Col. Amanda Henry, 354th Force Support Squadron commander, said child care shortages are a “very significant issue” at Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks. The base has 15 child care classrooms, but only five are currently operating for its 3,100 active-duty service members.
“We have about 28% of the staff that we are required to have to care for those children,” Henry said in an interview.
Sixty-five kids are on the Eielson child care waitlist, and airmen are forced to be creative, she said. Part of the challenge has been trying to recruit another 43 staff to work at the remote base and provide the care that’s needed, Henry said.
In an interview, Wilson could not point to any specific operations at JBER off the top of his head that had been canceled or delayed because of a lack of child care, but he said it has been “a constant strain on the entire workforce.”
Henry said she couldn’t estimate how many missions had been affected at Eielson.
“But those things have happened here, where folks were not able to show up to work because they were providing care for their children,” she said.
At nearby Fort Wainwright, an Army installation closer to Fairbanks, there are approximately 200 children waiting for child care, said spokeswoman Eve Baker. By email, she said that the lack of spaces “can definitely put a strain on families.”
Ground was broken last year for a new child care center, which is set to open next spring with a capacity for 338 children ages 6 weeks through 5 years. The hope is that the new center will help clear Fort Wainwright’s waiting list, Baker said.
The lack of child care options in the state is a concern for the U.S. Coast Guard leadership, a spokesperson said, requiring flexibility for guardsmen. The Coast Guard operates in small communities like Valdez, which doesn’t have a single year-round child care provider.
In Kodiak, a new, $40 million child care center is eagerly anticipated by the Coast Guard because the existing facility is in a tsunami zone.
At JBER, there are five child care centers, but only four are currently open due to a shortage of workers.
Across Alaska, the average pay for a child care worker is $13 an hour. With tight margins and a desire to tamp down fees for parents, providers say they often can’t afford to provide meaningful benefits to their employees, which hampers recruitment and retention efforts.
Wilson has implemented policies at JBER in an attempt to attract more staff. He has used funds that come from the sale of goods and services on base — usually used for morale and recreation opportunities for service members — to boost child care workers’ salaries to $18 an hour, increasing to more than $20 an hour after a few months of training.
There is also a “first child free” policy on offer, where child care workers hired on base get a free spot at a center for their own child, and discounts for additional children. Wilson said that “hasn’t solved the whole problem,” but it has helped.
Child care workers are required to have a high school diploma, but even with the relatively high salaries, recruitment is still a challenge, Wilson said, adding that “it’s difficult to convince someone to come to child care — child care is taxing and it’s difficult.”
Bases across Alaska have since adopted the same practices. Wilson said he has briefed senior members of the Department of Defense about how the lack of child care workers has affected his mission at JBER, and the policies he has implemented to address the sector’s workforce challenges, adding, “Alaska is leading the way.”
Melanee Mooneyham used to work at a child care center off-base in Alaska. She said her husband serves in the Army and that the higher salary was part of the reason why she started working as a child care provider at JBER. The military also offers much more generous benefits than civilian providers, such as health and dental insurance, paid vacations and retirement options.
“It was just a better opportunity for child care development and everything like that with the benefits that they have,” Mooneyham said.
Stephanie Berglund — CEO of thread, an Alaska child care advocacy organization — said she has heard reports that the military is in “jeopardy” from the scarcity of child care in Alaska, mirroring the same concerns and challenges facing parents in the wider community.
“It’s surprising to hear that even with increased wages and benefits, that they’re still struggling,” she said about the military’s child care recruitment efforts. “But I think that that’s a testament to the high competition that we have for the important workforce across the state right now, both on base and off.”
At a federal level, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has spoken about child care in the U.S. Senate as a serious concern for the military. She said the congressional delegation is trying to have a Coast Guard icebreaker homeported in Alaska, and child care could be a factor if that happens.
“How do we support the military? We need to make sure that our military families have those community supports: good schools, good health care, and good child care,” she said in an interview.
‘Know that they’re safe’
For the Sarten family, good news came in April. Their now 10-month-old son Finley got a spot at one of JBER’s child development centers. They said their child care costs dropped from $1,100 a month to $875 a month, and the quality of care drastically improved.
“It’s almost like he’s in school, where you know that they’re safe,” Fred Sarten said. “And they’re being fed at the right times and getting the proper nutrition, because they offer different meals and menus every day. So they put a lot more effort into that aspect as well.”
Child care on base is broadly said to be of high quality, secure and more affordable than what’s on offer outside in the community. But with a serious workforce shortage, there simply isn’t enough of it.
Wilson said his job as JBER commander can be similar to a city manager’s as he works to provide services for the roughly 5,500 people under his command.
“There’s probably nothing more important on this installation going on than the care of the children of our service members,” he said. “And as a parent who has had my child in those facilities, that’s where I want my focus to be — because if my team can go to work every day and know that their kids are safe and sound and secure, they can do the mission that is very often life or death, and they can do it without worrying about their most important thing to them, which is their family.”
Daily News photojournalist Loren Holmes contributed.