Despite a big pay boost the popular summer program is getting few applicants.

Every summer and winter school break, Melissa Tumbleson signs up her two daughters for PALS, a Maui County child care program that has long provided working parents with one of the most affordable summer options in the area. 

Her daughters aged 8 and 10 love PALS – Play and Learn Sessions – and this year in particular, Tumbleson was counting on the heavily subsidized program after she was laid off from her job at an escrow company a few months ago and only recently got a new one.

Maui County locator map

But not long after registering for the program she found out her two girls were waitlisted. 

“All of a sudden you’re like, oh shucks – I’ll probably end up having to pay $1,000 when I thought I was going to pay $200,” Tumbleson said.

This year more than ever before, Maui County is struggling to find workers, threatening the program’s ability to care for the community’s keiki. 

Paying for private childcare can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars for one child over the course of the summer. Even for a family with multiple children, the PALS program can cost a couple hundred dollars. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

The county is in the midst of raising PALS employees’ pay to a minimum of $20 per hour and a high of around $31 per hour depending on the role. Maui’s child care workers earn on average $32,050 per year, the third lowest annual wage on island behind fast food workers and parking attendants, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. Like other Maui employers, the government is trying to hire in a job market where the cost of living has forced families to move away. 

Before the pandemic struck, the county government served roughly 1,700 children in its summer PALS program across 19 different sites on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Demand for the program dropped significantly between 2020 and 2022, as did job applications. Last year, 321 out of 468 positions went unfilled, according to county documents, and the program served just 450 keiki at five sites on Maui and Molokai.

This summer demand for the program is back up, but the staffing levels aren’t, so there may be around 150 children who won’t get a spot, according to county officials. Only two people applied to work in Lahaina with about 80 kids registered for the program, threatening its existence in West Maui.

There won’t be a program on Lanai once again because the county hasn’t received a job application there since 2019.

“The right people to work with our children is the most important factor,” said Patrick McCall, Maui County Parks and Recreation director. “We need people who truly care about kids and want to make this program successful.” 

McCall, who was born and raised Upcountry, knows firsthand how important the care is. When he was growing up, he went to Summer Fun, the program that later evolved into PALS. The summer program brought children from across the island together to play, make art and crafts and learn to swim in public pools. 

“It was a place where you made lifelong friends,” McCall said. “And I can’t see a community where that’s not vital.”

Employers across sectors in Maui are struggling to find workers, including in the child care sector. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

McCall took the job as the county’s new parks director in January and is now acutely aware of the challenges recruiting for all sorts of positions, from public pool lifeguards to engineers in the water department. The PALS program is particularly tough to staff because it’s seasonal and requires a wide range of workers from entry level high school students to supervisors with college degrees in education.

It’s been especially hard to find qualified education workers who want to take on another job as a supervisor in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Do they need the money? Yes, they do.” McCall said. “But they also need some recovery time.”

Until last year, pay for PALS workers started at around $10.75 per hour. Last spring the county raised it to $15 per hour, and just recently, the often divided County Council unanimously agreed to put an additional half-million into next year’s budget to raise the minimum to $20 per hour. Many of their own children had been cared for or worked in the program, and the government is now looking into whether it’s possible to make the pay increase take effect by the time PALS starts in June.

“We are in a PALS crisis,” Council member Gabe Johnson, who championed the effort to raise pay, told his colleagues during a recent budget meeting.

Tumbleson had scrambled to track down potential scholarships for other summer programs for her daughters when she thought PALS wasn’t an option. After bracing to pay hundreds of dollars more than she’d expected, she received an email from the county Thursday morning: both of her girls got in.

“I feel thankful,” Tumbleson said, “and a lot less stressed about how to keep my girls busy and cared for during the summer.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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