FILE - ME children, kids, boy, girl, parent, shopping

People window shop in downtown Kennebunkport, Maine.

(The Center Square) ā€“ Child care options in Maine could be expanded under a law signed by Gov. Janet Mills, which will channel federal pandemic relief funds into expanding the services.

The new law will replicate an existing child care program, Early Head Start Child Care Partnership, which provides early schooling for children from birth to five years old whose families meet federal poverty guidelines.

Mills said the new law will "give working families what they need to provide healthy, safe child care for their kids that allows them to go to work, bring home a paycheck, and strengthen our economy."

"The lack of high-quality, affordable child care in Maine is a major barrier to the success of our children and our economy," Mills said in a statement. "It prevents people from starting new businesses, taking new jobs and moving to rural communities. It also deprives kids of important developmental opportunities."

Maine could create up to five additional early head start programs across the state under the new law. The programs would be sponsored by community providers and other stakeholders.

The state is getting about $120 million in federal funding for expanding child care programs through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Earlier this year, Mills directed $20 million in federal funding to expanding infant and toddler care and pre-kindergarten programs run by public schools.

Like many states, Maine is struggling to provide child care services for working families who are returning to their jobs as the threat of the pandemic subsides.

Advocates say a major issue is the lack of adequate compensation for child care workers. The average wage for a child care worker in Maine is about $12.80 an hour; while the average hourly wage for all workers in Maine is more than $24 an hour, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, filed a proposal seeking to pump $5 million a year into easing the child care shortage by boosting wages and training for early childhood educators.

But his proposal, which received a favorable vote by a key legislative committee, was among hundreds of bills that weren't acted on before the Legislature recessed for the summer.

Deborah Arcaro, with the Family Child Care Association of Maine, said the lack of affordable, accessible, and quality child care continues to hurt many working families. She says the state needs to do more to expand child care services and make it more affordable.

"Without available quality care, parentsā€™ choices are limited to leaving their children in care that they deem to be substandard, or leaving the workforce to stay home and care for their children," she said.