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Finding child care in Seattle: the metro area supply problem

An illustration of the Seattle skyline

Image by jongcreative


In the Seattle metro area, working parents and their employers are well aware of the ways the child care crisis has come to town. Parents are flabbergasted at the lack of spots in child care programs, and their employers are hearing more and more from employees who need to adjust work schedules to accommodate the limited child care options available to them. This story is playing out all over the country, but in Seattle, regional factors are ratcheting up the child care supply problem even more. 


Here’s a snapshot of one of the biggest issues working parents in the Seattle area are dealing with: child care supply. We’re looking at leading indicators of the child care ecosystem in Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties in Washington.


Seattle metro area population growth and child care


The Seattle tech boom has brought thousands of additional workers to the metro area, thanks to the proliferation of companies like Amazon and Microsoft. This growth has mostly been in King and Pierce counties, with an annual increase of 18.7% and 16.6% respectively. For children under six years old, who are most likely to need child care, that’s 127,399 additional children in King County, and 59,728 more kids in Pierce County. 

Consequently, this explosive population growth has strained many areas of ‘human infrastructure’—the systems communities depend on for the productivity, health, and wellbeing of its citizens. And perhaps no system has been hit directly as hard as the child care ecosystem within the Seattle metro area. 


Let’s see those population numbers in the context of child care program capacity.


Total capacity across programs

Population growth, children 0-6

2,136 total child care programs


+ 127,399

18,493 total child care programs


+ 59,728

Child care providers haven’t been able to keep pace with the exploding demand for child care in Seattle. And the problem is probably worse than you’d expect. For every three families in need of care, there’s only one opening available—anywhere, in any program. Demand for child care far exceeds supply. When you divide the total population of children under six by the number of spots per county, you get startling results:


Demand for child care is at 179% of capacity in King County, and 323% of capacity in Pierce County.


What does that mean for employers? When families can’t find the child care they need to go to work, they’re forced into impossible situations, choosing between looking after their children and maintaining their participation in the workforce. Families are left to cobble together care if they can’t find an opening, leading to increased rates of absenteeism and lost productivity for their employer. It’s a lose-lose situation for families and their employers. (But there are solutions! Read on.)


Child care programs struggle in Seattle


The child care industry was hit hard by the pandemic and child care workers continue to struggle. With the double-whammy of the pandemic and population boom, it’s no wonder child care providers in the Seattle metro area haven’t been able to keep up with the increased demand. There are some common issues that keep child care businesses from being able to make changes that could serve more families, such as:


  • Rent → The cost of rent is soaring, which prohibits providers from opening more locations. Providers are already operating on thin profit margins and don’t have the capital to find a new location in areas with high rent, where the demand tends to be most concentrated.
  • Capacity → Despite skyrocketing numbers of families who need child care, even the most popular programs often operate at 10-20% below capacity. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you think taking care of children is taxing, try doing that on top of running business operations like managing waitlists, communicating with prospective families, advertising open spots, and more. Lack of time and extra resources can cause providers to fall behind on activities that could fill more open spots.
  • Staffing → Child care programs are desperately hurting for employees. And programs can’t increase capacity to serve more kids and families if they don’t have sufficient staff to meet regulations and provide quality care. A significant hurdle for addressing staffing shortages is the disparity between industry wages and cost of living in the Seattle metro. It’s difficult to recruit skilled staff members with the low wages the industry pays—often less than $20 an hour. At that rate, prospective employees could make better money in other industries than they would if they were educating our earliest learners.




The child care crisis is distressing, but there’s hope for working parents, employers, and child care providers in Seattle. 




Parents can now see every open child care spot throughout the Seattle metro area—all on one platform. LegUp is the only comprehensive child care marketplace in Seattle. It lists every availability and lets you search by location, price, the date you need care, your child’s age, and more. Parents can learn about programs, communicate with providers, join waitlists, and take the next steps to securing the care they need. For more information on how the child care crisis directly impacts your organization, take a look at our data-driven report for employers.




Employers can help their working parents find, secure, and afford the child care they need to go to work with a robust child care benefit like Kinside. As the single source of truth for child care inventory, Kinside (which powers LegUp) is a platform where parents search for open spots, book tours, join waitlists, and pay for child care using their dependent care FSA, bank account, credit card, or a combination. It’s the one-stop-shop for employers who want to get the most out of their child care benefit and ensure that their DCFSA contributions are going the furthest by bypassing the reimbursement and claims process.


Child care providers


Child care providers can create a free account and join LegUp: the first enrollment management system that helps child care providers run their businesses with ease. LegUp helps providers manage enrollment, connect with families, manage and grow waitlists, process enrollments, and more.