Laura Ortiz was six months pregnant when she launched her search for day care. She had plenty of time, she told herself -- another six months, at least, before she would be returning to her job as a Pentagon analyst.

But when she began calling Northern Virginia day-care centers, she was in for a shock. Again and again she was told: You're too late.

One waiting list had 100 names on it; another operator said the wait would be 16 months.

In other words, said Ortiz, whose baby is due next month, she should have put her name on a child-care list even before she got pregnant, a notion the 29-year-old Loudoun County woman considers "crazy."

The long wait for infant day care reflects a worsening child-care crunch that has hit working parents hard -- in the Washington area and nationwide -- disrupting families, hobbling job-seekers and raising concerns about the price being paid by children.

At a time when the nation's child-care system faces higher demand because of a surging economy and the influx of an estimated 1.5 million children of former welfare recipients now holding jobs, the supply of day-care slots is stagnating or falling as workers depart the profession for better-paying jobs in shopping centers, offices and classrooms.

With waiting lists growing across the country, staff shortages have forced some day-care centers to freeze enrollment, shutter classrooms or even close their doors. At-home providers are being lured away by better pay.

The one upside to this labor shortage is that those who remain in child care are seeing modest salary increases after a decade of flat earnings. But for children, adjusting to multiple caregivers can be difficult indeed.

In suburban Maryland, Judy Cline's daughter Jackie Holt, now 4, rubbed the bridge of her nose raw with nervous thumb-sucking after she went through five teachers in the Rainbow Room at Wintergreen Child Development Center, a Rockville facility for 110 children.

"It was stressful for her and it was draining," said Cline, who works for the National Gallery of Art. "Her mind was going round and round in circles. I think she sensed there was a lack of control in the room."

Across the country, the shortage of child-care openings is a major hurdle for working parents, whether they are former welfare recipients, the working poor or middle class, officials say.

"It's a real crisis. There is no doubt about it," said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Association for Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. "I consider it to be a national disaster."

Even as states pump millions of dollars into child care as part of welfare reform, officials say they are having enough trouble stanching the outflow of providers -- let alone finding enough new ones to fill the growing number of job vacancies.

In Colorado, where more than 1,000 providers have quit in the last year, some day-care centers are fighting to survive.

"We don't know what to do now," said Diane Price, director of the Colorado Springs Child Nursery Centers, which shut down two classrooms and may have to close some of its six sites. "I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. What do I do? Do I stop? Do I run?"

Los Angeles County officials recently projected a shortfall of 150,000 day-care slots because of staff shortages, while the national YMCA, which runs programs before and after school for 350,000 children, has stopped expanding because it can't find workers. "Even though we have the space, we have the interest, we can't get the staff," said YMCA spokeswoman Barbara Taylor.

Turnover among day-care workers -- 30 percent in 1997 -- has worsened at many centers, providers say.

Harriet Berger, owner of four Peppertree Children's Center facilities in Germantown, has canceled plans to add a dozen infants and toddlers at one site because she's struggling with 50 percent staff turnover.

"I have this waiting list . . . and people begging us to open it, and we don't have the staff," Berger said. "It's bad enough trying to fill [staff positions] for the children I already have. I cannot expand."

Play and Learn Services Inc., which operates 10 centers in the Washington area, also stopped enrolling at some sites for months at a time because it couldn't replace departing employees, said company President Karen-Ann Broe.

In some respects, the Washington child-care market -- particularly for infant care -- now resembles the booming real estate market: Move quickly or you'll lose the opportunity.

"I'm having to call parents back and say, `I'm so sorry. The provider I took you to visit last week -- someone else contracted with her on the spot,' " said Beverly Lemmon, owner of Monday Morning MOMS, a Montgomery County service that matches working parents with family child-care providers.

Ann and Charlie Bieneman recently paid $65 to get their month-old daughter, Sophia, on a list at a Tysons Corner child-care center, where the wait is 18 months. "We like the center for toddlers also, and with a wait of 1 1/2 years, we needed to be on the list to be eligible even for that," said Ann Bieneman, 36, who is trying to figure out when she'll be able to return to her computer consulting job.

The need doesn't stop with infant care. Child-care providers say the demand is also growing for services before and after school, as more parents decide they don't want to be raising latchkey children.

The numbers tell the tale: Total capacity in Maryland day-care centers has fallen by 1,758, to 79,889, in the last year, according to the state Child Care Administration, while the number of licensed family providers fell by 442, to 11,734.

The picture is only a bit brighter in Northern Virginia, where the number of state-licensed centers rose 1 percent, to 675, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services, and the number of state-licensed family providers rose 2 percent, to 706.

"We need child-care providers desperately," said Pat Rivers, of Loudoun County's Family Services Department.

Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria -- which require smaller child-care providers exempt from state licensing to obtain local permits -- have all seen their numbers drop sharply in the last year. In Fairfax, for example, the number fell 14 percent, to 2,079, while calls from parents seeking help locating child care rose 7 percent.

In the District, 4,500 children are on waiting lists for child care, according to a recent report.

The staff shortage is "across the board," noted Bobbi Blok, executive director of the Washington Child Development Council. Private centers that are able to offer more competitive salaries are having a difficult time retaining workers, she said, and "it's close to impossible for subsidized programs" that do not pay as much.

It's not surprising to those who study day care that child-care providers are quitting in droves. Given their generally high level of education, they are among the worst-paid workers in the country, according to the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

Nationwide, the median salary for day-care providers was $7.03 an hour in 1997 -- the most recent data available -- below what parking lot attendants and bus drivers made, according to the center. Benefits are often meager or nonexistent.

Family child care paid even less: The median hourly rate (meaning half earned more, and half less) was $4.69 an hour.

With a soaring economy and a 29-year low in the nation's unemployment rate, at-home child-care providers and center employees don't have to look far to find greener pastures.

Dierdre Gervais, 41, folded her child-care business in June after nine years and launched a business that, for a fee, provides small gifts and coupons from merchants to new homeowners in fast-growing Loudoun. She also sells window blinds.

Working nights and weekends while her husband watches their three children, Gervais said she's pulling in as much as $1,400 a month now, compared with $500 as a child-care provider. "I love it," she said. "In two hours, I made 200 bucks. I wasn't doing that with . . . child care, that's for sure."

Some states have started programs to train former welfare recipients to be child-care providers, but critics argue with the assumption that just because these women are mothers, they will make good child-care providers. At any rate, they say, the jobs don't pay enough. And thus far, these programs haven't produced enough workers to narrow the gap.

Public schools have exacerbated the shortage by snapping up day-care teachers with the necessary credentials, offering salaries far above what child care pays.

A first-year teacher in Fairfax, for example, is paid at least $30,761; at a day-care center, that same four-year college degree translates into an annual salary of $15,000 to $23,000. Day-care assistants often earn as little as $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage.

"We're competing for the same [person], although they're offering double the dollars," said Barbara McEdery, chairman of the Montgomery County Child Care Commission and director of a chain of 14 nonprofit child-care centers.

Studies show that youngsters whose day-care providers change frequently tend to fall behind in their language and social skills.

"All of the studies about quality speak to the importance of the relationship between caregiver and child," said Barbara Willer, of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "When you disrupt that relationship through turnover, you disrupt the quality of the child-care program."

All in a Day's Work

While the nation's child-care system faces increasing demands for employees, more and more day-care workers are leaving the profession to seek better-paying jobs in other fields.

Hourly day-care salaries*, national median

Family day-care providers $4.69

Child-care center workers 7.03

Child-care workers, median

DC $10.22

Maryland 7.24

Virginia 6.70

Sample of current, hourly entry-level salaries locally

1999 federal minimum wage $5.15

Cook, Pizza Hut 5.15

Pharmacy technician, CVS 5.65-6.65

Grocery cashier, Giant 6.60

Sales associate, Hecht Co. 7.00-8.00

Cafeteria worker, Prince George's County schools 8.08

Bank teller, Allfirst Bank, Rockville 8.25

School bus driver, Fairfax County schools 11.92

Library associate, Montgomery County 13.90

*SOURCE: Center for the Child Care Workforce, 1997, most recent data available.