South Shore Stars’ early-childhood program in Weymouth, Mass., received zero applicants this summer for its preschool teacher positions. It was a big change from when Director Jennifer Curtis was superintendent of a local school district and routinely had 200 people apply for elementary school jobs.

The problem, Curtis said, is that day-care workers typically make about $12 an hour for a demanding job year-round. Public schools and other employers, which are also scrambling to hire workers, are poaching child-care staffers by offering thousands of dollars more a year and better benefits. A nearby Dunkin’ starts pay at $14 an hour.

People tell Curtis they’ll come to South Shore Stars as a “last resort” if they can’t find anything else.

Hiring and retaining good workers has been tough in the child-care industry for years, but it is escalating into a crisis. Pandemic-fueled staffing challenges threaten to hold back the recovery, as the staffing problems at day cares have a ripple effect across the economy. Without enough employees, day cares are turning away children, leaving parents — especially mothers — unable to return to work.

Nearly 1.6 million moms of children under 17 are still missing from the labor force. They dropped out during the pandemic to care for children and have not been able to return to work as the school and day-care situation remains chaotic, especially for unvaccinated children under the age of 12. There are still covid outbreaks occurring at schools, and some child-care centers and after-school programs remain closed or they are accepting fewer children.

Even the White House is concerned. In a report this past week, President Biden’s Treasury Department called the current child-care system “unworkable,” with high costs for parents, low wages for employees and not enough spots for kids.

“Child care is a textbook example of a broken market,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a mother herself. She pointed out that families spend, on average, 13 percent of their income on child care for young kids, yet day-care workers earn so little they rank in the bottom 2 percent of all professions. Biden has proposed the largest federal investment ever in child care in an effort to transform the sector.

“This is a crisis,” said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association. “Parents are looking for child care, but now it’s this Catch-22. We don’t have the staff, so we can’t open the classrooms, so families can’t go back to work because they can’t find child care.”

The numbers are staggering: The child-care services industry is still down 126,700 workers — more than a 10 percent decline from pre-pandemic levels, Labor Department data shows. While many industries complain they can’t find enough workers, the hiring situation is more dire in child-care than in restaurants right now.

Young women in their late teens and 20s who are typically drawn to work at day-care centers are opting instead to take jobs as administrative assistants, retail clerks and bank tellers, according to interviews with former workers and day-care owners. Veteran child-care workers are quitting. One day-care worker interviewed for this article quit in the past week. Several others indicated they are contemplating exiting soon. More than 10,000 workers have left the industry since June, Labor Department data shows.

“The pay is absolute crap for what’s required for the position,” said Tanzie Roberts, who quit in June. “I can’t afford to live on my own and work the child-care jobs that I am qualified for.”

Roberts now does administrative work for a tech company from her Florida home. She says she really misses working with kids but could not survive on the low wage at the day care. Her new job does not expose her to covid and pays more than $15 an hour with health insurance — a significant increase from the $11.45 she made working at a national chain day-care center.

More than a third of child-care providers are considering quitting or closing down their businesses within the next year, as a sense of hopelessness permeates the industry, according to a report last month from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Over half of minority-owned centers are in danger of shutting, the report warns. Barber, who runs the child-care group in Pennsylvania, says she now spends much of her day trying to talk day-care owners “off the ledge” so they don’t close.

Centers that serve working-class families or those in rural areas are especially in danger of closing because directors say they can’t raise costs.

“We don’t have our toddler room open right now. Even the infant room isn’t currently full because we don’t have enough staff,” said Sky Purdin, director of development at Jasmin Child Care and Preschool in Fargo, N.D., which serves low-income families. “We can’t match Walmart offering $15 or up. We are a small child-care center, and we are not able to provide benefits. People are going to jobs that have benefits.”

For years, there have been calls to pay child-care workers more, as the median pay in the industry — $25,460 a year, according to the Labor Department — is below the poverty line for a family of four. During the coronavirus pandemic, the work has become even harder because staffers must ensure kids as young as 2 and 3 wear masks and don’t touch each other.

The reason child-care centers pay less than service sector jobs is tied to their business model. Staffing costs are by far the biggest budget item because many must abide by local laws that mandate one caregiver per three to five kids, depending on their ages and the area of the country. Child-care labor costs can be as much as 50 to 60 percent of a day-care budget, according to a Treasury report. By contrast, restaurant labor costs tend to be about 30 percent of their budgets.

A study conducted during the pandemic by Philip Sirinides, director of the Institute of State and Regional Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg, found labor costs account for 80 percent of a child-care center’s budget. Raising pay for workers typically requires hiking fees for parents.

“Child-care providers have very narrow margins. They have to be at full capacity. That’s the only way the business model works for them,” Sirinides said.

Lawmakers in Washington approved $39 billion in child-care relief in March as part of the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan, with the bulk of the money going toward “stabilization funds” that child-care centers can use for anything from worker pay to fixing the roof to buying masks. Months later, only 14 states have their applications up and running so child-care centers can apply for funding, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The funding is viewed as a short-term fix by economists and day-care owners who say it would not be enough to permanently raise pay in the industry.

“I’m already known as the most expensive day care in town,” said Jordyn Rossignol, owner of Miss Jordyn’s Child Development Center in rural Caribou, Maine. “We need significant public investment to stay open. The days of only surviving off tuition from parents and off the backs of working families is done.”

Rossignol said she has lost 24 staff members since the pandemic started. Nearly all told her they quit because they can make more money elsewhere. She pays $12.15 to $14 an hour, depending on experience. Among her former employees, two are working as bank tellers now, and one went to a trucking company. Many became nannies. Her best toddler teacher now works across the street at a paint store.

Biden and top Democrats in Congress want to spend about $450 billion on child care as part of a sweeping $3.5 trillion bill, which would be the largest ever investment in federally backed child-care programs. The legislation would reduce child-care costs for low- and middle-income families and offer higher wages to caregivers, while providing free prekindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III from West Virginia, are balking at the high price of the overall bill. They want to see a smaller package, in which aid is more targeted to those most in need. “It’s not the federal government’s responsibility to educate all our children,” Manchin told reporters from his state in May.

Roberts, the former child-care worker who quit in June, grew up dreaming of becoming a teacher. But she says it was disheartening to learn that day-care workers with 20 years’ more experience still made less than $15 an hour. During the pandemic, when she had to get toddlers to keep their masks on and not touch each other, she was given a raise of 15 cents per hour.

A day-care worker named Danielle in central Florida who is in her 30s said she is thinking of quitting. She asked that her full name not be used for fear of retribution from her employer, a national child-care chain. Her job does not offer health insurance. She babysits and grooms pets on weekends to make ends meet.

“I make $11 an hour and I’m exhausted,” Danielle texted on a brief break. “My credit cards are almost maxed out and my savings are dwindling. It’s not looking good … I stay because I love the kiddos. It breaks my heart to think about having to find a new job.”

Another problem that child-care providers cite in hiring is increased difficulty in obtaining the necessary criminal background checks for workers during the pandemic, especially from state government offices. Child-care centers are required to fingerprint potential hires and check to ensure they are not listed on the sex offender registry and have not committed child neglect or abuse in any state where they lived during the past five years. Some states have been especially slow to release background checks during the pandemic, numerous child-care directors and advocates told The Washington Post.

Still, the top concern in the industry is how to raise pay. Among college graduates, those who major in early-childhood education earn the least out of 137 majors, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Jolie Cover called this the hardest year in her 30 years running Begin With Us Child Care and Preschool in Altoona, Pa. She is struggling to get applicants with even an associate’s degree or basic certificate.

“Our country needs to look at what we really value. We should value our youngest learners,” Cover said. “Our youngest kids should be cared for and educated in settings that are no less than what they receive in K-12 school districts.”

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.