Thousands Of California Child Care Providers Have Closed. A New Child Care Union Aims To Save The Rest
This summer, about 40,000 home child care workers in California unionized after almost two decades of organizing.
Ordinarily, a newly-formed union would start by negotiating a contract that outlines working conditions. But with the pandemic surging, the first priority for Child Care Providers United is emergency relief for providers.
"Under normal circumstances ... at this stage, we'd be having discussions around language to start creating a skeleton of a contract," said union Chair Max Arias. "But we're in COVID-19 times. We're in the middle of providers closing at an alarming rate."
Between March and November, 2,030 licensed child care homes in California permanently closed — 4,400 temporarily shut their doors.
The union's members care for children through California's subsidy programs for low-income families. Since the pandemic broke out, that care has been extended to some essential workers.
Providers have had to navigate shifting public health guidelines from federal, state and local agencies, spend thousands of extra dollars on cleaning supplies — sometimes making their own when store shelves were empty — and weigh the risk to their own health against the needs of their communities and the financial fallout of closing.
"Our approach is twofold," Arias said. "Stabilizing the industry, and thinking a little ahead at what's needed from now until the time that we return to whatever would be considered COVID-free."
'WE ARE WEARING ALL THE HATS'
Every weekday, nurses and hospital staff, county and restaurant workers drop their children off at Jackie Jackson's Los Angeles home.
She's been a family child care provider for more than 20 years.
"We are wearing all the hats," Jackson said in a video chat while the kids lay sleeping on cots for their afternoon nap. "We are the nurse. We're the teachers. We're the cooks. We're the janitors."
This year, Jackson, 56, had to lay off one of her assistants and spent an estimated $4,800 on additional supplies. Routine cleaning that took about an hour before the pandemic now takes up to four hours a day.
"You don't know what it's like to have to take toys, every day, every night and go and wash them and put them out to drip dry," Jackson said.
With most public schools closed, homes like Jackson's have also become classrooms for school-age children. Providers have paid to upgrade their internet and, when they could afford it, hired additional staff to keep the students on track.
"Having toddlers ... they want to flip toys and they laugh — 'uh oh!'— while you're trying to help these preschoolers become ready for kindergarten and formal schooling. It's very difficult," said Leimert Park family child care provider Aurora Reyes.
In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom designated $50 million to help essential workers pay for child care and $50 million to help providers purchase supplies. A few weeks later, President Donald Trump signed the first economic stimulus bill, which designated $350 million for California's child care programs.
With tens of thousands of child care providers in the state, those dollars are stretched thin. Jackson said she's only gotten one additional $1,000 payment so far.
About a month ago, Jackson felt like quitting.
"You got me on radio, so I ain't gonna say what I want to say," Jackson said. "You'll be beeping me out."
'UNSUNG HEROES IN THE COVID-19 CRISIS'
California is one of a dozen states where child care providers have collective bargaining rights. Maggie Laslo helped organize Illinois child care providers in the 1990s. Providers there unionized and ratified their first contract with the state in 2005.
Laslo said the union's been able to secure higher wages, access to training and health insurance for some members. "When we were forming the union and building, you know, we weren't even really sure that that was even possible," she said.
It's important to hear "the voices of the people that are actually doing the work, to get a chance to have a say in the conditions of their job," said Jynai McDonald, who coordinates family child care providers in Massachusetts.
Like in California, providers in her state are mostly women of color.
"This also comes down to the value of having the union be able to help bring equity to marginalized communities that our workers are a part of and that they serve," McDonald said.
Jackie Jackson is participating in an ongoing LAist project that invites caregivers to document their lives through photos. Check out year one of the project, Parenting: Unfiltered.
A recent policy brief from the Erikson Institute called home child care providers the "unsung heroes in the COVID-19 crisis," but noted "the crisis exacerbated conditions for an already vulnerable workforce."
In L.A. County, the average pay for home child care providers is $11.73 an hour.
"A lot of what you earn in it is based on the ability of families to pay, and if you're serving low- and lower-income families, and you don't have public money, then you're going to be making less," said Marcy Whitebook, director emerita of UC Berkeley's Center For the Study of Child Care Employment.
Another contributing factor is the amount of money California's government reimburses providers to care for an estimated 360,000 kids in the state's subsidy program.
As we have previously reported, today's rates for subsidized providers are based on a 2016 survey of child care costs. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates it would cost an additional $230 million to pay providers based on the most recent survey from 2018.
Legislation that would have overhauled the payment system has failed in the past. A new strategic plan for California's early childhood programs acknowledges the current reimbursement system as "overly complex and inequitable," and proposes establishing a new formula to pay providers.
Whitebook said before the pandemic she believed the union's recognition could have transformed the industry.
"They have some possibility here, but I do think that there's sort of a bigger problem, which is that there just isn't enough money in this system," she said.
DEEP BREATHS AND MOVING FORWARD
In November, Child Care Providers United filed an unfair labor charge alleging the state wasn't providing enough information to move forward in negotiations. The California Public Employment Relations Board is reviewing the charge. California's Department of Human Resources declined to comment.
Union Chair Max Arias said in subsequent meetings the union laid out proposals for emergency relief, including paying providers more if they're helping children with virtual learning and providing unlimited paid closure days related to COVID-19
"The state's role is to determine how they will resolve the issue," Arias said. "We propose solutions."
Jackson has tried to manage the stress by taking long walks, often in the evening.
"It gives me my opportunity to look at the lights and take some deep breaths and come on back up in here and work with my babies," she said. "The next day, I'm all energetic. I'm all back alive. I'm good to go."
This fall, her peers elected Jackson to the union's bargaining committee.
"My heart is like, 'OK, if you give up Jackie, you're gonna give up on a lot of providers that look up to you,'" Jackson said.