Childcare Providers Are Fighting For Their Livelihoods And A Seat At The Table
In honor of Labor Day, mitú is running a short series highlighting childcare providers in California and those affected by struggles with childcare. One in three providers in California are Latina. They and others are fighting for a fairer wage, collective bargaining within the government and many other issues.
Ramona Duran’s house in Long Beach is pretty typical from the outside. But if you walk beyond the peach stucco façade and small garden in the front yard, there’s a flurry of activity. On any given weekday, 14 children, some as young as infant age to five-year-olds, can be found playing, crying and laughing at almost all hours of the day. While that may sound like a nightmare to some, Duran is elated to be the calm among the storm of little voices at Ramona’s Day Care.
Duran has been running her day care the last 21 years. The space is a child’s paradise. Shelves built by her husband hold dress-up clothes, musical instruments, educational games and dolls of children of different ethnicities and abilities that she uses to teach kids about diversity. The walls are covered with photos of happy families and kids, and a little play kitchen holds a basket of plastic pan dulce.
She proudly walks through her daycare, pointing out a wall of colorfully-drawn butterflies and blue dogs cut out of construction paper. This is B week, and through those drawings Duran teaches the children math, colors, Spanish and English while also strengthening their fine motor skills and showing them how to socialize with other children. It’s the proverbial spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
This is what she and the thousands of other providers do — care for children and teach them the many lessons they need early in their lives in order to succeed later in their education and eventual careers.
More than half of licensed providers are women of color. One out of every three are Latina in California. Duran is one of them. She does this work out of genuine love of children. The joys of caring for children are impossible to calculate. However, what can be calculated are the considerably low earnings and lack of benefits providers receive.
The childcare system is frustratingly confusing and tedious. While some parents pay out of pocket for child care, making it a somewhat simple transaction (you watched my child, here is the money I owe you), many others rely on subsidized childcare from the state government, with the government providing funding to local non-profits who then pay the providers directly.
That’s where things get very complicated.
The programs that provide subsidized childcare and the non-profits who carry out the programs each have their own system, set of rules and paperwork required on a regular basis so the parent can remain enrolled and the provider can get paid. It’s through various agencies that parents and providers interact with.
Providers are considered independent contractors, similar to someone who works freelance. They are paid a different set amount per child depending on a variety of factors that include age, the program they’re in, regional market rates and the number of hours the child is in the provider’s care.
Providers have a mix of children, caring for 14 max at a time. For every child in a subsidy program, they have to provide documentation of care to the respective program the child is in. However, if at no fault of the provider documents are lost, there’s a mistake or the parent’s paperwork hasn’t been submitted, the provider isn’t paid until all documents are in. If a parent’s circumstances change, such as their new income makes them ineligible for subsidized care and no one notifies the provider, the provider is not paid for her work. Sometimes it can take months before a provider is notified that she will not be paid because the family was disqualified. Providers have to go through all this for each child in their care. It’s not fun, at best.
Even with all that paperwork and bureaucracy, the end result is minuscule pay for providers.
Let’s say a provider has a kid under two in their care. The hourly rate they can get if the child is with them less than 5.59 hours a day but less than 30 hours a week, is about $10 a day. But if they’re there more than 30 hours a week, that $10 turns into a part-time rate of about $7. If the child is there longer than 30 hours, then it’s full time. Now it drops to about $5 an hour. The longer the child is in their care, the less they make. The rates decrease the older the child is.
This is not a hypothetical example. It’s the reality for Tonia McMillan, 58, a childcare provider and advocate in Bellflower, California. While providers don’t make an hourly wage, on average, a childcare provider makes $5-$8 an hour. But they’re not even guaranteed that amount.
McMillan has been a provider for 24 years. While she loves working with children, red tape and poor pay weigh on her. That’s why she, Duran and others have joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – to fight for fairer wages, collective bargaining and better benefits for childcare providers.
McMillan and the others are fighting for $15 an hour as the base for school age children. They also want collective bargaining because it ensures they have a seat at the table with law makers who make decisions that impact providers’ livelihood and that of the parents and the children in their care.
Herminia Garcia, 60, is a childcare provider in Carson, California, who is also a union member. Originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, Garcia has been a provider for 17 years. For an infant she cares for, she makes $31 a day, even if it’s longer than eight hours. For an 18-month-old, she’s paid $27 a day. She has an assistant she pays $10 an hour. In the end, she ends up making about $2 an hour.
Half of America’s childcare workers need food stamps, welfare payments or Medicaid, according to a study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Many qualify for other government programs, like food programs, that help offset costs. But because they’re independent contractors, that have to pay everything they spend on their business out of pocket. That includes food for the kids, water, toilet paper, school supplies, baby wipes, hand soap, toys, books, and the many other things needed to care for kids. On food alone, McMillan estimates her costs at $500 a week.
Providers are also required by law to have insurance and, if they have more than eight kids in their care and depending on the kids’ ages, must have an assistant. Those assistants are hourly employees and are required to be paid the minimum wage. The state, however, is not required to pay providers the minimum wage.
At one point, McMillan made $78,000 in a year. However, with all the costs associated with the work, including assistants, what she actually made was $16,000. She can never get sick because there are no sick days, vacations are almost impossible to take and the financial struggle is often great.
So why do this work? Every provider will say that it’s the love they have for children, who they form close, sometimes lifelong bonds with, and because they provide help to parents. They also believe it is work that is necessary. Their daycares are within the communities they live in, and they serve the children and parents within that community. Their work helps lift often poor, communities of color.
“Meeting the providers, I realized this is golden,” says McMillan. “We do work that we should be super proud of.”
And when parents aren’t able to pay for their child’s care, or when they’re stuck in paperwork purgatory with their subsidy program, providers don’t turn them away.
“There’s people that in reality depend a lot on their job, and it’s really important that they have someone to take care of their children and that they know they can leave them in a place they trust,” says Duran. “Most of all, they have to bring the bread home too. That’s why I help them. I understand.”
The problem becomes that the work isn’t respected. At least that’s how it appears considering how often hard-fought bills that offer them better pay or collective bargaining are vetoed without a second thought. For McMillan, the reason is crystal clear.
“It’s the country we live in. It’s our history. As women, we’re considered the nurturers,” says McMillan. “As black women and brown women, we’re natural nannies. We’ve always been the ones to take care of the little white babies. That’s our history. That’s the racial stereotype that’s ingrained in this country and our institutions. I don’t care what the deniers say. I live this every day.”
Because of this long-instituted belief, these women’s work is devalued.
On a cool Friday night, 25 women gathered at Duran’s home to meet with their union rep, Maria Duque, a 26-year-old who was there to answer questions, provide information and help them navigate the complicated subsidized system they so rely on. The providers spoke amongst each other, and sometimes over each other, as they discussed the many issues they are dealing with in getting paid and in getting by. Garcia is there in an arm sling, the result of an injury on the job. Together, they commiserate, talk and empower each other to fight for their livelihood and future.