Childcare teachers call for worthy wages
April 1998

In several places around the country, childcare teachers are getting together to organize for worthy wages. Like so many Americans, childcare teachers are doing worthy work, but getting worthless wages--but for childcare teachers it's the worst. Childcare teaching is the lowest paid occupation in the country, according to numerous studies. Childcare teachers are worse paid than janitors, farmworkers, funeral attendants and food service workers. This is true even though childcare teachers have more education and training than the average person.

Last year, the Alachua County Childcare Teachers Association (ACCTA) asked 242 childcare providers about their wages, benefits and working conditions, because they believe that the key problem in childcare is the low pay and poor working conditions of teachers. 98% of those surveyed were women and 37% were people of color.

The results, released in March, were striking even to the organizers:

The average wage among those surveyed was $6.20 per hour. Nationally, pay for childcare teachers is $6.12, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Half the child care workforce earn an income at or below the poverty level. "I regularly have a second job because my childcare job doesn't pay me enough to support my family," said a head teacher at Headstart on her survey form. Family child care providers, who care for children in their own homes, average $3.37 per hour. Eula Coward of ACCTA, at the March press conference announcing the survey, said that although she's worked in childcare for 27 years, she makes $5.45/hour. "I have to love what I'm doing," she said, "I love the children, and I love the work, I love the co-workers, but there have to be a lot of changes." She is paid this even after she received a Child Development Associate, a certificate in early childhood education.

Only 19% of those surveyed said they got breaks away from the children during the day, and only 42% said they received any kind of breaks at all. "We've tried to work breaks into the schedule, but it hasn't worked. I don't have enough staff," said a director of a church-sponsored childcare program.

Three out of four childcare teachers work overtime, and 30% work overtime without pay. The size of the classes is also a problem. Employees at one out of every five centers reported that their centers were currently exceeding the maximum legal limit for the number of children a teacher is allowed to care for. One out of four centers "frequently or occasionally" break these limits, according to those surveyed. "Even with the ratios as high as they are, we're having to break them. It's inexcusable," said Francie Hunt of ACCTA. She noted that the state ratio for 5 year olds is 25 children to one adult.

One out of five respondents said they had health concerns about their workplace, including sick children coming to school. "Staff is so overworked that they could use wrong judgement," said the director of a church-sponsored program. A teacher at a local for-profit center said "We have to wash disposable cups, forks and spoons with no hot water."

Only 30% of child care providers surveyed received any health care benefits, and only 13% had a retirement plan.

Many childcare workers have to hold a second job to make ends meet. "I make more money as a waitress in three nights than all week at daycare," a teacher aide said on her survey form. "We are the working poor," said one childcare teacher at a recent Worthy Wage day meeting, "many of us are recipients" of food stamps and welfare.

The low wages, the lack of benefits, the hard working conditions and the lack of respect are causing terribly high turnover in the field--many childcare centers lose 1/3 of their staff every year. ACCTA says that this not only is hard on the teachers, but it's hard on the children, and in measurable ways impedes their learning and wellbeing. According to a study by the national Center for the Childcare Workforce, children attending centers with high staff turnover are less competent in language and social development. As a result, they are less likely to be prepared for school.

Every single person surveyed said they stay in the field because of their love of children. In a letter to the Gainesville Sun (1/23/96) Francie Hunt stated, "We are very frustrated that, while we love our jobs and we are good at them, we feel as though our compassion is used against us. Many teachers must choose between a meaningful teaching profession and a job in which we can actually make a living. Many teachers have worked in the profession for years and still do not make over $6 an hour... In order to survive in this pink-collar industry, we must either be dependent on someone else or we must work more than 40 hours a week."

In the last year, suddenly everyone became concerned about the lack of affordable, quality childcare. Left out of the discussion, according to the Center for the Childcare Workforce, are those providing the care. CCW and ACCTA, which is an affiliate locally, ask the public to approach this problem with teachers, parents and children in mind. CCW's Marcy Whitebrook sums up the problem: "Parents can't afford to pay. Teachers can't afford to stay. We've got to find a better way!" Hunt says, "The one way we can truly help our children is for teachers to unite and organize for change."

"Many working families spend one quarter of their income or more on childcare," ACCTA notes. "But we believe that those who work directly with young children should not be expected to bear the whole burden of providing quality childcare."

At a recent Worthy Wage day meeting, participants expressed that it wasn't enough to just get a little public or private grant here and there, but that some real money needed to be put into the system to make it work for everyone.

President Clinton has talked about increasing childcare availability now that women who were receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children are being forced to work outside the home. But the amount offered is paltry.

ACCTA participants note that the same national study which says that childcare workers receive $6.12 an hour, and family care providers receive $3.37 an hour, says that kindergarten teachers receive, on average, $19.16 an hour. While this isn't a worthy wage, compared to the importance of the job, it's worth thinking about why there is such a difference. Kindergarten teachers are overwhelmingly working for publicly-funded schools, not private corporations or small, struggling not-for-profits & for-profit centers. And, public school teachers are unionized, they're able to use the strength of their numbers to advocate for better pay and working conditions.

We don't expect individual parents to pay for Kindergarten through 12th grade education, because we've decided that that is a public good and that schools must be available to all as a necessary prerequisite for an equal and democratic society. We also struggle towards (and politicians give lipservice to) making college available to any person who wishes to go through government aid and grants.

Yet early childhood is supposed to be either dealt with by one parent (nearly always the mother) staying home, or by both parents working frantically to make enough money to pay for childcare. To address the problem, childcare providers and parents in Seattle got together, and after several years of working to educate the public, they decided that the cost of not having childcare needed to be illustrated concretely through a one-day closure of childcare centers in the city. "Childcare keeps America working," they stated, and when childcare workers don't work, the parents don't work. This focused on who really benefits from childcare--not just the children, not just the parents, but also the employers of the parents, and the community at large.

New studies are revealing that the years 0-3 are the most critical years in the development of social interaction and learning. This information should help the public at large understand why it's important to put more resources into early childhood education--something parents and childcare providers are starting to rally around more and more.

To receive a copy of the Alachua County Childcare Standards Project, send $1 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to ACCTA, P.O. Box 475, Micanopy, FL \32667. Or call Francie Hunt at (352) 466-4162.

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