Could child care unions help bring the industry back from the brink?

Could child care unions help bring the industry back from the brink?

Renaldo Sanders was determined not to let the coronavirus pandemic stop her from serving kids. That meant she kept the in-home day care she runs in Compton, California, operating this spring even as the virus closed businesses and schools across the country.

More recently, she has bought extra tables so her students can sit at a social distance and a high-tech UV sanitizing wand to disinfect supplies and surfaces. She also upgraded her internet to accommodate the Zoom classes of the school-age children who are now spending the day in her care because their school buildings are shut and their parents have returned to work.

“I even bought a new computer so if theirs aren’t working, they have another one to use,” said Sanders, a licensed child care provider who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. 

Sanders’ experience is shared by child care providers around the country, 70 percent of whom have been forced to pour additional money into their businesses to keep them operating safely, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But while their spending has increased, incomes have not. The median hourly wage of a self-employed, home-based child care provider before the pandemic was $10.35, and many providers lost clientele this spring, further depressing their earnings. Although the federal CARES Act provided some relief, advocates say it isn’t nearly enough to keep many providers from shutting their doors. By one estimate, half the country’s licensed child care centers are in danger of closing for good.

The public health crisis has added new urgency to a push to unionize the industry, which has long struggled with low pay and poor working conditions. This summer, in-home or “family” child care workers in Sanders’ state of California became the latest to form a union. The union, Child Care Providers United, represents workers who care for children receiving government subsidies, enabling the professionals to collectively negotiate with the state on matters such as compensation, benefits and working conditions. Advocates say the bargaining power could offer a crucial lifeline at a time when the industry is under severe strain.

The child care industry, which is made up of many small businesses with high employee turnover, is largely nonunionized. Just a quarter of home-based providers belonged to an association or a union last year, according to a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. Roughly a quarter of states have collective bargaining rights for family child care workers, but only six have agreements: Washington, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut and Illinois, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Some states, like California, haven’t drafted contracts yet; others had agreements that expired or were canceled.

California’s family child care workers fought for 16 years for the right to bargain with the state before finding an ally in Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed a law last year allowing collective bargaining for home-based child care workers. This July, approximately 10,000 child care workers voted overwhelmingly to join Child Care Providers United, a partnership of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Union members are now working on a list of demands, although the dual crises of the pandemic and the wildfires have postponed their first meeting with the state on a contract.

Chief among the members’ demands is a living wage. Many child care providers depend financially on a government subsidy program for low-income children in their care. But subsidized care is underfunded and oversubscribed: Approximately 15 percent of the children who are eligible for child care vouchers under federal guidelines get them, according to the United States Government Accountability Office. Only four states offer subsidies at the recommended 75th percentile of the current market rate, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Workers may also decide to press the state for benefits, including health insurance, paid sick leave and retirement plans, said union members and officials. They are also discussing hazard pay and ways to improve working conditions during the pandemic, such as greater access to personal protective equipment, sanitizing supplies and coronavirus testing. Until these needs are met, providers say they must make an impossible choice: give up their income or risk contracting the coronavirus.

Related: Her child care center was already on the brink – then coronavirus struck

Marcy Whitebook, founding director of the Berkeley center, said that as K-12 school buildings have remained shut, child care centers are now being forced to step in and attend to those kids. “K-12 teachers want to make sure they don’t have to trade off their livelihood and their health,” she said, but few child care providers have such an option. K-12 public school teachers often have powerful unions to back them; child care providers largely do not.

But a union can only go so far in alleviating many of the challenges facing the child care industry. For example, while some providers, like those in Illinois, have managed to negotiate a health care plan for members, union contracts in other states have lapsed. Ultimately, many advocates are calling for child care to be treated as a public good, through larger-scale proposals like universal child care. And they say there needs to be broader recognition of the importance of child care both to the economy and to child development, and of child care workers’ roles as skilled professionals. Most child care workers are women of color, and for too long sexism and racism has held them back, said Max Arias, chair of Child Care Providers United.

Arias and others like him are hopeful that the new child care union will inspire other states to follow California’s example. A few weeks ago, a provider from Michigan reached out to Sanders, who has campaigned for better treatment for child care professionals for nearly two decades, to ask about her experience.

“She just called out of the blue,” said Sanders, “and she goes, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve made history! You’ve made history! I want you to help us!’ ” Sanders gave her fellow provider a couple of pointers, such as how to start a Facebook page to connect workers across the state and organize car rallies to get the word out.

Sanders said having a union has already made a difference in terms of how her industry is perceived in California. Twenty years ago, when she went to Sacramento to lobby on behalf of child care providers, she would see legislators “looking at their watch.”

“We were babysitters,” she said. “But now they see the teaching and learning that goes on in our programs.”

This story about child care unions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.