For California Child Care Workers, Inequality Is Baked Into The System
The child care workforce is mostly made up of women of color who aren't paid very much -- a little over $10 an hour on average nationally, according to one study.
But California child care providers could be on the verge of getting help in their fight for higher wages. This week, balloting is wrapping up in a month-long vote to unionize child care workers.
If the state's providers vote to join the union, Child Care Providers United, it will mark a significant turning point in decades of trying to organize child care workers -- and in efforts overall to change a system rooted in inequality.
"There's a long history in this country of people expecting servitude and [of] Black women and Brown women to care for other people and other people's children, without having the means to care for themselves and for their own families and for their own children," said Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
The pandemic has magnified the challenges providers face, including confusing state and local public health guidelines, inadequate funding and limited supplies to keep their businesses safe for children and staff.
In a national survey, 40% of child care providers said they will have to close for good without additional public assistance.
'YOU HAVE TO FIGHT FOR INCREASES'
While the majority of L.A.-area child care centers closed in recent months, most independent family child care businesses run out of people's homes remained open to care for children whose parents are essential workers.
Sue Carrera operates one of them. The majority of her Inglewood home is dedicated to the kids. The walls are painted a soft green that Carrera says helps calm the youngsters down. In the living room there's a custom-built wooden playhouse.
"That's the one that the infants use and it helps them to learn to crawl upstairs and slide and walk and all kinds of stuff," Carrera said.
Her first client back in 2008 was her grandson.
"And then it just went from word of mouth," Carrera said. I've never done any type of advertising." She's almost always fully enrolled with 14 kids, most younger than 5.
"I'm able to pay my bills," Carrera said. "But, you know, to say, 'Do you have money left over at the end of the month for yourself?' The answer is usually no."
"You have to fight for increases," Carrera said. "You have to fight for your rights. You have to fight for everything."
LITTLE HAS CHANGED IN NEARLY HALF A CENTURY
Child care providers have been working in an underfunded system for decades.
"Child care in California is, for the most part, in a state of confusion," according to a 1976 Los Angeles Times article. "It is a maze of expensive research studies, complexities of funding, bureaucratic squabbling, licensing problems and conflicts with parent groups. Underscoring all is an overwhelming need for child care services."
"This absolutely could have been written today," Austin said. "Unfortunately, it's not surprising."
The average pay for child care workers nationally is $10.72 an hour. Austin and her colleagues analyzed the pay by race and found that African American and Latino early educators are most likely to be in the lowest-paying jobs.
It's a vestige, said University of Cincinnati College of Law Dean Verna Williams, of early 20th century training programs like "The Black Mammy Memorial Institute," named for the racist stereotype, that were among the few options available to Black women.
"The mission being to prepare black women to serve in roles that were ... [considered] appropriate for their station, but also not threatening to white people," said Williams, who has studied and written about race, class and gender in education and policy.
The origin of those domestic roles is rooted in slavery, when African American women took care of their owners' children, she said.
While it's now recognized that critical brain development happens in the first few years of life, today's early educators have inherited a system that doesn't value their work and shortchanges children.
"I hope that with this pandemic and need for quality child care becoming so evident, that that is an impetus for some change," Williams said.
A 24-HOUR WORKDAY TO MAKE ENDS MEET
Last fall, home providers won collective bargaining rights under AB 378, a bill authored by Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara). The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September.
AB 378 opened the door to an organizing effort by Child Care Providers United, a partnership of SEIU and AFSCME, which for the last month has been gathering votes from potential union members. Balloting ends on Wednesday.
Among the child care providers who support the union is Wendy Moran, who runs a home day care center in South Los Angeles. She wakes up at 3:45 a.m. and, with the help of three assistants, runs her business 24 hours a day both because her clients need it and because financially it's the only way to make it work.
"It's stress, but I know how to manage the stress," Moran said. "I enjoy what I do, but it was my sleep that is really hurting me."
A few years ago she started getting migraines. Her doctor said she needed more sleep. She thought about cutting her hours, but her clients couldn't find other options.
"It's hard for me to say no and then I feel bad and then I keep thinking like, I can still find a way to take a nap over the day and figure out how to help," Moran said.
There are also families in Moran's neighborhood stuck on a waiting list for subsidized care.
More than half of L.A. County's babies and toddlers are eligible for state-subsidized child care programs, but only 6% are served, according to a 2018 analysis from Advancement Project California.
Moran and other providers will find out if they'll have a union to argue for better pay and other benefits when the election votes are tallied Friday.
'SHAME ON US FOR NOT STEPPING UP'
California relies on outdated data to determine how much to pay providers to care for children from low-income families who qualify for one of several subsidy programs.
"Their reimbursement rate hasn't kept pace with inflation, and just hasn't kept pace with what we know is most important in terms of having a stable, well-trained workforce in early care and education," said State Sen. Holly Mitchell, whose district includes Culver City, Ladera Heights and Westmont, and L.A.'s Crenshaw, downtown, and Florence neighborhoods.
Mitchell formerly ran one of the region's largest child care resource and referral agencies, Crystal Stairs.
"You know, when I first got to the legislature 10 years ago, I had to stop members from referring to them as babysitters," she said.
According to state law, the "intent" of the legislature is to reimburse providers based on the most recent data, but it hasn't happened. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates it would cost an additional $230 million to pay providers based on the same percentile of the newest survey.
"Essentially it's a shame on us for not stepping up to our values and paying the proper rate to make these programs viable for providers and for families," said Sacramento Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who's sponsored legislation, along with Límon, that would overhaul the whole payment system.
"At this moment, the only way that California can invest is by not cutting," said Límon.
LEAVING THE FIELD FOR BETTER PAY
Another challenge is the idea that increasing rates for providers means fewer families will have access to care.
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation in 2007 that would have allowed providers to unionize, he wrote that changes to how providers are paid and trained "could come at the expense of the number of available child care slots."
But low wages are part of the reason providers are leaving the workforce and reducing the state's capacity to care for children.
That's a familiar story to Rose Maina. She has taught early childhood education at Los Angeles Trade Technical College for more than two decades and now chairs the college's business civic engagement pathway.
Over the years she has seen students leave the field for careers that promise more pay. Maina even left early education at one point to manage a Kinko's.
"I didn't last but a week, because, you know, I missed my children," she said. "Even though I'm making less money, I'm really doing something of value here. I'm contributing to society's good."