When Nancy Wyatt got a notice in the mail last fall saying she owed $501 to the City of Los Angeles, she knew something was wrong.
She’s cared for kids in her San Fernando Valley home since 1985 and serves as the public policy chair for the California Family Child Care Network.
Wyatt advocated for 2019 legislation meant to reduce burdensome and costly regulations, that municipalities charged the largely Black and Brown women often making below minimum wage to care for children in licensed home-based daycares.
Los Angeles eliminated annual fire permit fees for licensed family child care providers in March 2021 to comply with the law, but notices went out in the fall, threatening penalties if payments weren’t made by the end of the year.
As of March 30, 2022, just 13 of the 267 child care providers who paid for a fire permit in the last year had received a refund, according to the office’s records.
“We're aware of the issue, and we're just working to resolve it as quickly as possible,” said Los Angeles Office of Finance Director and City Treasurer Diana Mangioglu.
The bills arrived when many providers, who operate on thin margins in the best of times, were struggling to financially survive amid the increased cost of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, fluctuating enrollment and coronavirus-induced closures. The majority of California family child care providers reported in 2020 they could only cover an unexpected $400 expense by taking on debt.
“It's unbearable to see my income,” said L.A. family child care provider Mirabelle Guevarra. “I'm working on my income tax return and it’s unbearable to see how much expenses I have.”
2019 Law Eliminates Fees, Permits For Family Child Care
The new law meant providers who care for kids from multiple families in their home would continue to need a state license, but were free from many additional requirements mandated by cities and counties.
“We can be like any other home in the neighborhood,” Wyatt said.
Los Angeles eliminated its annual fire permit fees effective March 18, 2021.
“The Fire Department Inspectors gave their best effort to physically go to each site… and advise them they would not need to pay for a fire permit anymore,” said Captain Samuel Galvan in an emailed statement.
But that message didn’t reach everyone. Adding to the confusion, by the time the Office of Finance updated its automated billing system in October 2021, the notices to renew the fire permits were already on their way to 779 providers.
We never received a letter or a warning that ‘Hey, you know, there's this bill that came out but you don't have to pay for it. You don’t have to stress yourselves out.'
It’s unclear why there was a gap between the permit’s elimination and the update, but Director Mangioglu said at one point last summer the Office of Finance had lost more than a quarter of its staff. Experienced employees were incentivized to retire and there was a hiring freeze to help the city stave off a financial crisis.
“Something that could have taken us five minutes to correct, you know, is now taking us several days to perhaps implement,” Mangioglu said.
But the problems with the erroneous fire permit bills have persisted for months.
Several providers reached out to the non-profit Child Care Law Center for help navigating the bills.
“This oversight by the city finance department should be rectified in writing, in many languages, to every provider who got this notice,” said Community Advocate Toni Robertson.
Robertson said she hasn’t heard of any provider receiving a refund without first reaching out to the City and requesting it.
Mangioglu, with the Office of Finance, said the city canceled the permits and is in the process of reaching out to the 200 who paid the most recent fee. Providers must sign and return a city document before they can receive a refund. The “notice of overpayment” is in English, with some lines translated into Spanish and Korean, Mangioglu said.
Child Care Providers On The Brink
Wyatt documented her call to the city’s finance department in November and sent back a copy of her bill with “void” scrawled across the front in capital letters.
“Then I got, to my surprise and dismay, a notice of hearing for failure to pay,” Wyatt said. The March 2022 bill was $751.50 and included a 50% penalty for failing to pay. (LAist noticed that the city may have classified Wyatt’s business as a commercial, rather than home-based child care. The city has since corrected the discrepancy.)
“If there are permit holders that are still receiving notices, we'd have to take a look at that and obviously correct it as soon as we can,” Mangioglu said.
Dozens of providers have posted about the bills in child care-related Facebook groups throughout the last year.
“LADIES PLEASE SHARE!! We don’t have to pay this,” wrote Estrella Mundy last year in response to another provider, who she advised to ask for a refund.
“I felt like everyone deserves their money back,” Mundy told LAist. “They can use that money for something else.”
Mundy for example, often invests additional money back into her child care. This month the kids at her home will learn about the butterfly life cycle first-hand with their very own larvae.
Child care providers have long made poverty level wages. L.A. County found family child care providers made an average of $11.73 an hour in a 2017 report. Between caring for the kids, cleaning, cooking, bookkeeping and running errands, they might devote more than 12 hours a day to their business.
When Mirabelle Guevarra got a bill from the City of Los Angeles for $580.50 in May 2021 her child care had been closed for more than a year. She didn’t want to risk the health of her husband, sons and elderly mother when there were limited guidelines on how to operate safely during the pandemic and no vaccines.
“We never received a letter or a warning that ‘Hey, you know, there's this bill that came out but you don't have to pay for it. You don’t have to stress yourselves out,’” Guevarra said. She dipped into savings to cover the permit and wouldn’t find out until months later that the city had eliminated the fee. She filed a claim for a refund in October and received a check from the city in December.
Like more than half of California child care workers, Guevarra and her family rely on public support programs like Medi-Cal to make ends meet. She said she often asks the utility companies for extensions.
Guevarra re-opened Tita Mira Family Daycare in August 2021 with one child and still isn’t back to full enrollment.
One in five Los Angeles family child care providers have shut down in the last decade, slashing the number of options for working families.
“I'm almost about to go look for another job,” Guevarra said. “But this is my passion.”
Top image: Daniella Segura for LAist
How To Get A Refund/Cómo Pedir Un Reembolso
Licensed family child care providers operating in residential areas no longer need to pay for an annual fire permit as of March 18, 2021. Bills are sometimes labeled as a “Fire Permit Renewal” or a charge for an F522 Fire Permit.
Providers who believe they may have overpaid can contact the Office of Finance at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 844-663-4411.
Providers have one year from the date they paid to ask for a refund. They will need to complete and return a “claim for refund application." Mangioglu said the Office of Finance generally issues refunds within 3-4 weeks of receiving the paperwork.
Cómo Pedir Un Reembolso
Desde el 18 de marzo de 2021, si usted es una proveedora de cuidado infantil en casa, no tiene que pagar el permiso de bomberos. Las facturas a veces están marcadas como “Fire Permit Renewal” o un cobro por un “F522 Fire Permit''.
Tiene que llenar y mandar un formulario “claim for refund application” (en inglés). Mangioglu dice que en general la Oficina de Finanzas envía los reembolsos dentro de 3-4 semanas después de recibir el formulario.