When parents brought their children to Cooks Hill Community Childcare Center Tuesday morning, they were expecting a routine drop-off. They weren’t expecting to learn that the day before, the center's director had been fired and roughly half of the center’s staff had quit.
Some families were turned away that day due to the staffing shortage. Rumors that untrained volunteers from the church were working in the child care center due to the staffing shortage led parents to report the center to the state licensor’s office, and under their advice, the church announced Thursday that it is closing the child care center for two weeks starting Sept. 27 to hire and train new staff.
As of Thursday afternoon, roughly 10 of the center’s 80 enrolled children had been pulled from the program.
“Parents right now are freaking out. They’re pulling their children, they’re trying to find alternative care, they don’t feel comfortable having their children there. It’s not a safe environment. It’s just gotten really, really bad,” said Cheyney Jones, a former first-grade teacher at the child care center.
Jones was among the group of employees who quit Monday evening following an emergency staff meeting where church administration informed them that Director Jessica King, who had been a member of the church for over 10 years, had been fired that morning.
“After I spoke up for Jessica, many of us employees said that we would not stay at this daycare without her and it was wrong, so we all walked out,” Jones said.
And despite repeatedly asking Cooks Hill Pastor Emily Faley, the church administration leadership board and daycare board for answers as to why the director was fired, staff and families have yet to receive any clear answers.
The closest they got to an explanation was a letter handed out to families Tuesday evening announcing the daycare was temporarily reducing its hours and claiming the staffing shortage was due to “the nature of the recent controversial mandate by Inslee for vaccines in child care centers.”
Staff say that claim was completely false.
“Our office staff are vaccinated. Over half of our employees are vaccinated or have their exemptions. So I mean, she (Faley) is just lying to parents and we want answers,” said Jones.
A large group of families and former staff held a rally outside the church during a meeting between the church and daycare boards Wednesday evening to show their support for King and to get answers from board members as to why King was fired.
They waited outside in the rain for the entirety of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting. But when board members finally dispersed around 9:30 p.m., they told the rally members that they could not speak publicly on the matter, and left.
The church posted a second letter to families in a private Facebook group for Cooks Hill families on Thursday morning informing parents that the church has “had to let our daycare director go” and stating “I know many of you have questions, but we keep all employee matters confidential.”
Church administration echoed that message in an official statement to The Chronicle, reading: “The Administrative Leadership Board made the decision to end her employment for cause, the church declines to comment publicly on the details of internal personnel issues.”
Not even King was given a reason why she was let go.
Like all U.S. states except Montana, Washington is an at-will employment state, meaning employers can legally fire an employee at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all, so long as they are not violating employee protection laws.
But if an employee submits a written request for a reason why they were let go, employers are required to provide a written statement within 10 days of the request.
King has submitted a request and is awaiting a response, primarily so she has something to tell future employers.
“A lot of people just felt confused and hurt, and the fact that there were no answers, it leaves them in a space to be scared and fear does a lot to someone. And our family is just trying to pick up the pieces and move on, as hard as it is,” said King.
Whatever the reason for King’s firing, families and staff are frustrated with how Cooks Hill has handled the situation, Jones said, adding that she and others felt like they were “blindsided” by Faley and the church administration — especially after learning that Cooks Hill has already hired a replacement director, who will be introduced to families “soon,” according to the Facebook post.
“She (Faley) just didn’t go about any of it in the correct manner. You notify parents of these things. They have to go to work.”
Cooks Hill has stated it will refund enrolled families for the two weeks the child care center is closed. And if new teacher hires can get through their background checks and training before the planned Oct. 11 reopening date, the church plans to reopen the child care center early.
“We were not planning on closing temporarily and we were not expecting the response with teachers resigning,” said Faley and the church administration in the Facebook post.
“This is not the path we would have chosen, as we are hoping to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible so we can move forward without any disruption.”