The Workforce Behind the Workforce: Child Care Workers and the Need to Address Their Compensation

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By Cynthia Rice, Senior Policy Analyst, ACNJ and Meghan Tavormina, President, NJAEYC Co-Chairs, Think Babies Child Care Workgroup

It was no surprise when Governor Murphy deemed child care an “essential service” as part of his stay-at-home executive order in March. Parents working in hospitals, nursing homes, food and drug stores and gas stations could not have gone to work without a safe place for their children to be cared for and educated.

And the child care community rose to the occasion.

While public schools were required to close, approximately 500 of New Jersey’s 4,200 child care programs remained open to educate and care for children whose parents were needed to provide for our neighbors. These programs’ teachers and aides came to work every day, providing nurturing and caring experiences under new stringent standards that included social distancing, wearing face masks, frequent hand washing, cleaning and temperature checks. These increased standards—and increased work—was all meant to keep children and staff safe and healthy.

For many child care staff, however, one thing that didn’t change was their salaries. Even during a pandemic, when child care was deemed an essential service and staff were responsible for caring for young children, their wages continued to be low.

Many child care workers make less than cashiers and other entry-level jobs. In fact, most early childhood educators earn so little, they qualify for public benefits, including programs they work for because those programs target low-income families. And according to New Jersey’s 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index, the median wage for a child care worker was $11.51, with 51 percent of these workers being eligible to participate in one or more public income support programs. Cynthia Soete, President of the Coalition for Infant Toddler Educators (CITE) shares the constant challenge of this reality. “Finding qualified staff has always been hard because of what we pay our early childhood care workforce. It will now be even harder because their responsibilities will increase in order for us to meet the new safety standards. We are asking so much from them professionally, for so little compensation.

The problem of child care’s continued low staff salaries became glaringly evident in recent months when child care directors reached out to their staffs to discuss reopening. Many directors got “pushback” from their staff because they were making significantly more money on unemployment than they would if they returned to work.

Some directors are finding that their staffs are also hesitant to return to work because of safety reasons. They fear that they are putting their own health and the health of their families at risk because they will be working with a population in which enforcing social distancing is an uphill battle.

Young children are not wired to stay six feet apart. They want to play together and hug each other and our staff, and that makes social distancing very difficult,” said Stephanie Anderson, Director, West Essex YMCA Peanut Shell Early Childhood Learning Center in Livingston.

Finding new jobs offering the same or often higher salaries with a lower risk of infection is far more enticing to child care staff, particularly since many programs do not offer health insurance and private-paid insurance is often out-of-reach to these low-wage employees.

“We find ourselves competing with Walmart and Target, and often, we cannot,” said Winifred Smith, Senior Director, Zadie’s Early Childhood Centers in Summit and East Orange.

One of the biggest lessons from this pandemic experience is that we all need child care. It was essential to support employee families who were on the front-line of the emergency and remains essential as our state reopens the economy. We have learned that child care is “the workforce behind the workforce,” and parents cannot return to their jobs if their child care options have been drastically reduced. But that means that a stable, qualified workforce needs to be in place. That can only happen when the compensation of child care staff moves towards matching the “essential” role they play in the health and development of the children they care for and educate every day.

As highlighted in the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC), Power to the Profession, assuming comparable qualifications and experiences, child care salaries must reflect compensation on par with other educational colleagues, such as kindergarten teachers. This is no easy feat at a time when the economy is struggling as a result of COVID-19’s overall devastation. But we can’t return to a system that was not meeting or addressing the needs of the child care workforce.

Whether it is bigger federal or state investments, new systems or new laws that will provide child care staff with other forms of revenue, like child care tax credits, we need to make workforce compensation a higher priority. Doing so is directly linked with both the success of our children and our economy. We must learn from our experiences and improve the compensation of our child care workforce. Otherwise, staffing problems that became glaring during the last few months will continue to impact the quality and accessibility of the child care infrastructure that remains and will not allow our economy to have a fighting chance in moving towards a “stronger and fairer” New Jersey.

5 Responses to The Workforce Behind the Workforce: Child Care Workers and the Need to Address Their Compensation

  1. Malika Jafri June 22, 2020 at 5:28 pm #

    we are penny makers subsidy is paying $3.50 an hour $125 a week and DCF told to the parents that don’t pay the copayment to the providers . And We Are Essential workers working 52 hours a week . we are getting lesser than a cashier or a telemarketer. Unions are deducting an amount from our biweekly payment from subsidy . Pl make a loud voice for our right. We the family childcare providers are taking care of America’s future and getting very less . I am a provider for 20 years.

  2. Milsa Cerpa June 22, 2020 at 10:16 pm #

    I Agree to this statement childcare service during this pandemic was a challenge for all the preschool teachers and teacher assistance we work really hard during this time to help our first responder workers. we need people to see our effort and recognize how important is our labor as educators. programs working with subsidize children should get an increase rate for childcare services to improve our preschool salaries. also we should get grants to help our center during this pandemic. childcare are experience a very low enrollment. families are afraid to send their kids to school. we still need to keep our teachers working even without the same capacity that we use to have before. we need to cut hours when they need the money to keep their families is very hard for all of us. PLease we need HELP!!!!

  3. Julie Rogers June 23, 2020 at 10:30 am #

    Excellent article, Cynthia Rice. Now more than ever it’s become apparent that early childhood educators are the very essential workforce behind the workforce. Early learning for our young children now prepares them to be contributors to our society later and contributes to our future collective prosperity.

  4. Rebecca M Cleveland June 23, 2020 at 12:45 pm #

    I agree with this statement because child care workers are essential more than ever during the entire pandemic and we should continue to be once the pandemic is fully gone. Child care workers need more compensation and more recognition for the long hours, challenging days, setting the stepping stones for our FUTURE society and being educated with such a precise scaffold that all educators implement for their students.

    We need more recognition and assistance for the staffing in the early childhood education field to hold a job and maintain their credentials. Fewer people are majoring this in college due to their lack of funds, which then leads to fewer reliable, educational and purposeful educators in the field with young ones.

  5. Cindy Shields June 23, 2020 at 1:30 pm #

    Well said, Cynthia & Meghan! Now is the time to speak up and keep our momentum going for children and early childhood educators in the state of New Jersey…