Nicole Cox and her husband spend two hours a day taking their kids to day care across the city, because the child care facilities near where the military family works on Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph were full.
As soon as they knew they were moving to San Antonio in 2022, the Cox family started making calls to get their two young children on the waitlist. But on base, the wait was more than a year long, Cox said.
“Sometimes it takes me an hour and a half one way, but that was my only option,” she said. “That really was the only option for my son, which is the frustrating part.”
About 80,000 service members and civilians work at the three military bases that make up Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA). Together, the military bases only offer about 990 child care slots. Another 135 slots are closed due to facility system upgrades, JBSA said.
The government offers subsidized child care at Randolph, Lackland and Fort Sam Houston. Each base houses two or three child development centers, which fit 275, 550 and 165 children, respectively, according to JBSA.
Another 65 slots are available through at-home care.
All seats are at full capacity and are at full enrollment, JBSA said in a statement.
“It takes several months to get a spot, even after you have [a] baby, because they don’t have enough spots on the base,” Cox said. About 25% of all military families have a family member with special needs, which makes it harder to find specialized care closer to home.
The issue is that there’s just not enough space, said Kayla Corbitt, founder of Operation Child Care Project, a local and national San Antonio-based nonprofit that helps families get subsidized child care outside of military bases.
“We’re Military City, USA. So we have a large number of families who need access to that care,” Corbitt said.
It’s an issue that reaches far beyond San Antonio. In Los Angeles, San Antonio transfer resident Coryn Millander put her son on the Los Angeles Air Force Base day care waitlist before he was born, when the wait at the time was about 11 months. When they finally needed day care, they only had to wait three weeks.
A year later, Millander lives in San Antonio and is pregnant with twins. She couldn’t get a place for her son on base even though her husband is a military officer, but she found a child care center closer to their home that will prioritize seats for her twins because their sibling already attends.
“All three [bases] had super long wait times. I want to say it ranged from six months to a year,” she said. “That’s why we decided to look at other day cares off-base.”
But JBSA said it has a plan to meet at least some of the demand, and is working to add about 600 priority one child care spots.
A new $46.6 million child care development center was authorized for construction at Fort Sam Houston in August 2023. JBSA said it expects a construction award for another $46.8 million center at Lackland in October, and another $46.6 million center at Randolph in September. From the start date, each project has a two-year construction period, JBSA said.
JBSA said a portion of the center at Lackland Air Force Base will undergo renovations to add two more preschool classrooms.
“Once all construction projects are complete, JBSA is projected to have over 600 additional child care spaces available to military families,” said Emma McHenry, spokesperson for JBSA.
McHenry did not say how long each waitlist is, but it depends on a rank based on priority and on the child’s age group. While they wait, JBSA refers people to Military Child Care, a website that helps parents find alternative care.
“It’s a struggle. You have to put your kid on the waitlist far in advance and even then it doesn’t guarantee anything, and you still have to wait months and months and months to get your kid in,” Millander said about getting a spot on base.
Child care on base is in high demand because parents get high-quality and subsidized care. It’s also convenient for people who work on base, saving them a commute to a day care center.
But in recent years, a number of staffing and financial issues have hit the child care industry, leading to the spike of child care costs and the closure of centers while others deal with staffing issues and retention.
There are centers that accept the military subsidy, but the issue is finding one, Corbitt said. On a January afternoon, she had just finished calling a list of centers for a family that needed child care for their three children for about 14 hours a day.
“That’s just not what civilian child care has to offer,” Corbitt said. “What happens is usually the nonservice member is forced to remain unemployed because we don’t have child care that fits what we need.”
Corbitt said that for spouses who want to work outside the home, their ability to do that relies on whether they have children — and if so, whether they can afford and have access to child care.
But that doesn’t exactly mean there’s a “flood” of folks leaving the workforce simply because of child care — there are other factors involved too, said Courtney Stephenson, grant director of the Service Member, Veteran and Family program at United Way of Bexar County and San Antonio.
Around 25% of military spouses are unemployed — or want to work but can’t — and 30% are underemployed, meaning they’re forced to take positions that offer flexible work hours so that they’re available during their active-duty service member’s unpredictable schedule, she added.
“I think we’re having a challenge of military spouses being able to enter the workforce and do real, meaningful work,” Stephenson said.