With no federal solution in sight, states are taking steps to improve pay for childcare workers

In the past few years, duality has come to seem more of a folkloric practice than any political reality that would pass through legislative buildings today. So it means something when a body of elected officials in the US votes unanimously to pass a bill.

And it signified slightly earlier this month when the Maine state legislature voted 130 to 0 on a proposal to supplement childcare workers’ wages.

That level of buy-in and support has become increasingly rare. But after two years of a pandemic that has raised awareness about the challenges facing childcare workers and has also increased those challenges, many Americans have a better understanding of how valuable — yet undervalued — early childhood educators are. This also applies to policy makers.

Pandemic aid funding helped ease some of the burden on the field, allowing childcare programs — which in many cases are private small businesses — to remain open and give providers some extra cash to raise their staff’s pay. But it wasn’t a miracle cure. Relief funds, such as those allocated from President Biden’s US bailout plan, have expiration dates. It is not something that childcare providers or employees can count on indefinitely.

Many in the field, along with attorneys, parents, and the general public, were looking for Biden’s Build Back Better plan to provide a more permanent solution. The bill includes a number of provisions that would improve conditions for early childhood and the workforce, including instituting a higher minimum wage for those working in childcare (the median wage nationally is about $11.65 per hour). It would also alleviate some of the financial burden on parents, who in some cases pay more per month for childcare than they spend on housing.

But now Build Back Better has been bogged down in Congress for months. With a stalled Senate and a few critical holdouts, the future is uncertain. And in this case, that’s not just some sloppy talk about policy. The uncertainty means that parents, caregivers and educators of young children everywhere are left in the dark, with parents unable to afford quality care and staff unable to cover their basic costs with wages close to poverty level.

‘It comes down to dollars and cents’

Maine is one of a number of states that have taken steps to improve the pay of those who work in early childhood education.

In Maine, the state legislature approved — and the governor approved — more than $12 million in ongoing funding to supplement wages for all child caregivers in the state. In fact, that works out to about $200 more per month for each educator.

“It doesn’t change your life,” said Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, “but it’s an important step, a way to recognize that childcare is an industry that enables all other industries.”

Ryan Fecteau, Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and sponsor of the bill, acknowledges that this allowance is not getting the wages of the young workforce where it should be. (In Maine, the median wage of a childminder in 2019 was $12.89 per hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.)

“This is a workforce that has historically been far, far too undervalued for the work they do,” says Fecteau. “I don’t think there’s really a pay rise that the legislature could approve that would reflect the real value of this workforce. It is a boost that stabilizes this industry.”

But Fecteau insists the increase is not insignificant. He’s heard of nannies across the state quitting their daycare and teaching jobs—jobs they loved and “felt called to,” he notes—for the department store or restaurant down the street that’s a few bucks could offer more per month. o’clock. “For many nurseries, it comes down to dollars and cents.”

With the governor’s approval of the supplementary budget last week, Maine made this investment permanent, which had first come into effect last year with US bailout dollars and was set to expire in the fall.

“We want people to understand that early childhood education is not babysitting,” added Fecteau. “This is a crucial task for families and child development. By making this $12.5 million state investment, we are making clear to child caregivers, families and employers that this is a job that is critical to everything we do in society. And hopefully we will send a message to future child carers that this is a profession that could be viable for them.”

States don’t wait anymore

Neighboring countries in the Northeast Corridor are considering – or have already passed – legislation of their own that will help child carers. Efforts are underway in Massachusetts and New York, Wuori says — and indeed, states across the country have introduced bills or are investigating the matter. In Washington DC, the city council recently approved one-time payments of between $10,000 and $14,000 to childcare workers, a step in a larger plan that aims to increase wages in the industry.

Connecticut is itself considering pay raises for young children, though the outcome of budget discussions in the state legislature is still at stake, said Maggie Adair, director of government and community relations at the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood. The legislative session will be adjourned on Wednesday, May 4.

“It’s the first time in a long time that lawmakers really understand the glaring need to raise wages,” Adair said.

She adds, “This is not unique to Connecticut. It’s a national problem. Early childhood workers are among the lowest paid workers of any job. It’s a structural problem – a market system that’s broken. You cannot ask parents to pay more. They too are tied up.”

The budget talks in Connecticut reflect the greater awareness and understanding the public now has about early childhood education. But they also reveal the urgency to make permanent some of the funding available to early childhood educators since the start of the pandemic.

Deb Flis, a co-director of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, speaks of the “benefit cliff” facing childcare providers in the not-too-distant future given the temporary nature of American Rescue funds.

“The staff are facing a loss of that funding, so they can’t plan it and can’t live off it for a long time,” explains Flis. “It could drive some really critical spending and help them in the job they’re in, but when those dollars run out, this legislative package becomes really important.”

Wuori of the Hunt Institute believes there’s still a “high probability” that Congress will do something about early childhood somehow, though the details — when, what, how — remain elusive. “I would be surprised if Congress hasn’t taken substantial action in eight months,” he said.

Still, Wuori adds, that situation remains unpredictable as ever. And meanwhile, the efforts of states are both encouraging and significant.

He notes: “I think that’s a reflection of how important [child care] is on the labor force and on the economies of the states.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.