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California Child Care Union’s First Labor Contract Guarantees Raises, But ‘We Don’t Stop Here,’ Providers Say

A teacher reads a book to a group of children inside the classroom as they site on a circular rug.
More than two decades ago, Jackie Jackson transformed her South Central Los Angeles home into a family child care business.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)
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California Child Care Union’s First Labor Contract Guarantees Raises, But ‘We Don’t Stop Here,’ Providers Say

California’s child care union is set to accomplish what the governor and legislature failed to do for years — increase the pay for more than 40,000 providers in the state, most of them women of color, who on average have long subsisted on poverty wages.

“I wanted to have a career that would allow me to raise my children and be there for them,” said Carolina Toma, a Signal Hill family child care provider and member of the negotiations team. "But I never thought that I would be part of a labor movement to fight for the rights and interests of low-income families and childcare providers in California and become an advocate of education.”

Child Care Providers United represents the child care workers who care for kids in their homes through state subsidy programs for low-income families. The tentative agreement it reached with the state on June 25 promises raises of at least 15% starting in January.

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Union members will vote on ratifying the agreement this month, and the terms are expected to be included in budget trailer bills that need legislative approval and the Governor’s signature.

“There was a strong effort on behalf of the childcare workers to address this historic inequity,” said UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong. “However, rarely can that be done in one single negotiation.”

There was a strong effort on behalf of the childcare workers to address this historic inequity.
— Kent Wong, UCLA Labor Center Director

The people who for nearly two decades for the right to bargain for better working conditions and had their sights set on even higher wages, and access to health care and retirement savings.

“The fact that we are lifting the floor of the most vulnerable and underpaid workers within our society is a big deal,” Wong said.

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California providers are celebrating and policy experts are exploring whether the organizing tactics used here could benefit providers in other states.

“There's still significant broad federal underinvestment in these workforces,” said Ivy Love, a senior policy analyst in the Center on Education & Labor at the public policy think tank New America. “One of the areas where folks have actually been able to make strides in the right direction ... were in places that had organized.”

‘I Need To Do Something’

I first spoke with second-generation Van Nuys family child care provider Sylvia Hernandez last June, over Zoom, in the midst of a historic union election.

Hernandez and her mom run licensed home-based child care centers, caring for kids from low-income families who qualify for subsidized child care.

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“We do teach children. We do have curriculums, you know, the only difference is that we are at home,” she said.

In this image, two children sit at a classroom table while watching videos on tablets.
Family child care homes became centers for distance learning during the pandemic and providers often paid for updated internet and technology to help the students.
(Jackie Jackson for LAist)

How much they are paid for this work is based on a regional survey of child care costs conducted every two years. Currently, the state pays based providers on the 75th percentile of the 2016 survey, despite the “intent” outlined in statute to pay providers at a higher percentile of the most recent survey.

That means in L.A. County right now, providers earn a maximum of $5.80 an hour to care for an infant full time.

Hernandez said even though she runs her child care business 24 hours a day, five days a week, after buying supplies and paying her staff, she winds up earning less than minimum wage.

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“Seeing my mom work so many hours, getting paid so little, I said, ‘I need to do something,’” Hernandez said.

Providers voted overwhelmingly last July to be represented by Child Care Providers United. Hernandez was elected to the union’s first negotiations team.

In the midst of the pandemic, the union’s first priority was emergency relief. The union negotiated with the state to secure two rounds of stipends, additional paid closure days, and to establish a working group to determine how to spend billions of dollars from the federal government designated for COVID-19 relief.

Since March 2020, at least 2,952 family child care homes have shut down with thousands more closed temporarily, according to numbers provided to LAist by the California Department of Social Services.

Wong with the UCLA Labor Center said the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Latino communities was a “wake-up call” about the conditions for those working in jobs deemed essential like child care.

“How, on the one hand, can it be claimed that these are essential workers ... that are necessary to get our economy back on the move … and on the other hand, continue to pay them poverty wages with no benefits?” Wong said.

We don't stop here, I can do so much. I can give so much to my community and to my providers … I feel very, very powerful.
— Sylvia Hernandez, Van Nuys family child care provider and union negotiations team member

The union is not alone in pushing for higher compensation for those caring for California's children. For years advocates and some lawmakers, including Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat who represents parts of the Inland Empire, supported legislation that would totally revamp the payment system. Adopting a new reimbursement rate model is also a part of the state’s overall strategic plan for early learning and care.

“You know, I will say first, I'm kind of baffled that we have not gotten rate reform done,” Leyva said. “But I would also say this, I think it's the way society views child care, they view it as women's work. They don't view it as something that has value.”

‘We Don’t Stop Here’

Sylvia Hernandez joined fellow child care providers and negotiations team members at South L.A.’s Post & Beam for a celebratory brunch on a recent Sunday. The group of women represented more than 80 years of child care experience combined.

“We don't stop here, I can do so much,” Hernandez said. “I can give so much to my community and to my providers … I feel very, very powerful.”

While they waited for plates of shrimp and grits and steak and eggs, the providers started to talk about the wages they’ll earn — and how they’ll likely reinvest a lot of that money in the kids.

“Now that we’ve gotten our little raise ... what do you think we can probably do differently in our facilities? Because now that we have that money?” said Jackie Jackson, a South L.A. family child care provider, looking at Hernandez.

“Well, you know, first of all, upgrade everything,” Hernandez replied, going on to say she’d like to give bonuses to the five staff members she employs.

Child Care Providers United’s agreement establishes new labor committees to look at ways the state could provide benefits that many child care workers don’t have, such as retirement plans and health insurance.

The deal also includes $40 million dollars for training and education, and about $3 million to incentivize new providers to become licensed.

“You're putting money toward paying better, but you're also putting toward better care,” said Aaron Loewenberg, a policy analyst at the think tank New America. He co-authored a recent report looking at the relationship between child care workers and unions with Abbie Lieberman, Cassandra Robertson, Lul Tesfai and Ivy Love.

Child care workers were left out of federal legislation that established many worker protections.

“For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) established minimum wage and overtime pay standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the public and private sector,” the report reads. “However, family child care providers still do not have protections under FLSA, in part because they are considered self-employed.”

California is one of about a dozen states where child care workers have collective bargaining rights.

“It really does take, sort of, boots on the ground organizing…to put pressure on our elected officials to make big changes,” Loewenberg said.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.