Worthy Wage Day event honors childcare teachers
May/June 1998

The following is a speech by Francie Hunt of the Alachua County Childcare Teachers Association at their May 1 "Raises not just Praises Reception for Teachers." Her speech adapts some text provided by Marcie Whitebook and Claudia Wayne of the Center for the Child Care Workforce.

Welcome to the 7th annual nationwide Worthy Wage Day and the first Worthy Wage Day in North Central Florida.

Quick: What group of people would do the fastest job of bringing the economy to a halt if they didn't show up for work Monday morning? You've guessed it! You know who holds this country together on a daily basis. It's not the CEOs of all the multinational corporations. It's not even the President and Congress. It's three million or more under recognized people who allow working families to seek a livelihood--and often don't earn a decent one themselves, even though they're helping shape the lives of the next generation at the very tenderest age.

It's the child care teachers and family child care providers.

Could our community do without us? How important are we? How much are we worth? As the President and Congress prepare to take a hard look at the American child care system this year, and develop bills and funding plans to make it work better, it's time to take this question very seriously. That's because roughly one in three child care workers leave the job each year--most likely to make a better living elsewhere, according to the "Worthy Work, Unlivable Wages," a national study released this week by the Center for the Child Care Workforce. Parents, if you use a child care program, chances are your child has recently seen at least one trusted adult (if not several) come and go. And while we adults may talk about staff turnover and unstable arrangements. Children view it quite differently. They're experiencing loss.

The answer to this child care crisis isn't simply for parents to pay more. If you're like most people, you know you're already stretching. But that doesn't mean that the people taking care of your child, whether in a center or their own home, are well paid--good care costs roughly twice the typical parent fee. As a slogan coined by a seven-year-old coalition of child care workers, parents and other advocates declares, "Parents can't afford to pay. Teachers can't afford to stay. There's got to be a better way."

The coalition is called the Worthy Wage Campaign and it's coordinated locally by the Alachua Child Care Teachers Association, We think the better way is a major, well-targeted investment that can bridge the gap between what families can afford and what it costs to provide good, reliable, nurturing child care.

This country can't work without good child care. Parents depend on it. Many young children are at risk without it. If were serious about reforming the welfare system, there has to be safe, reliable care for children while their parents work. And the answer isn't simply to make our poorly functioning child care system bigger. It's time to focus not only on quantity of care but quality and Head Start, Military Child Care and several states have shown it can be done, by focusing on training and rewarding child care professionals who are the cornerstone of quality. Why do you think Headstart and Military child care are examples of quality? Teacher compensation.

And that is why we are here today. To thank and to honor the care givers who keep your family going. To truly recognize and appreciate teachers for the hard work we do. As a teacher I know a typical day might go like this: [ad lib] You enter your center's doors and you start the day running. You return the toys that you accidentally brought home in your pockets the day before while a parent reminds you to give Melissa her medicine before lunch time. You call the kids in for rug time and Teresa is running around the playground and wont get in line to come inside. You ask her where are you supposed to be? and she tells you quite frankly the farm. You go to get her while the rest of your class runs away. By the time you all get on the rug, you cant seem to find the book you were supposed to read, but that's okay because you have to go and change Billy who just had an accident. Meanwhile, Trevor is eating some chalk and your director walks in. You finally find the book but it has been torn up by the two-year-old class. You rush around the room picking out toys that still are not broken or markers that have not dried out and you put them out in hopes that it will entice them into play. You feed the kids, remembering what each kid likes and what they are allergic to, put them down for nap, rub backs, tie what seems like 1500 undone shoelaces...What else do we do?...and so on and at the end of the day you have to remember what each child has done and let parents know how their child's day went and every so often you may hear Your so lucky. You have it so easy. All you get to do is play all day. But we know that when Johnny is playing in the sandbox and sharing the one shovel he is developing social skills. When we add water to the sandbox, he is learning science. When we ask him how it feels, he is developing language and when he pours sand out of his bucket he is using gross motor skills and when he pours from measuring cups he is learning math. We plan our lessons according to the developmental ability of each child, and we utilize these teachable moments throughout the day so that children are constantly learning through their play.

The first few years of a child's life are crucial learning years that will have lifetime effects. Every teacher that I talk to is in the field because we love children. And part of truly appreciating the jobs that we do is to pay us a worthy wage and give us decent working conditions. In March, we released the results from our Alachua County Childcare Standards Survey which asked 242 childcare teachers about wages, working conditions, benefits and changes they want to see. At our press conference announcing the survey, we had a TV20 reporter sit on our child-sized toilet while we told him that a third of all teachers in Alachua County do not have an adult bathroom. Another reporter attempted to sit on a child-sized rocker with armrest--you can imagine the difficulty--while we told her that a third of all teachers do not have adult furniture. In our bathroom stall we had a sign that read staff lounge, because often that is the only time we get away from the children and take a break. Among the teachers surveyed we found that the average wage was $6.20 an hour. Is that a worthy wage? No! We're paid less than poodle groomers and funeral attendants. We who care for young children earn less than those who take care of dead people! Nationally, childcare is the lowest paid occupation.

Teachers--we need to talk about our wages. We need to talk to each other and to our parents about how much we make. Usually when I tell parents how much I make they are shocked. SHOCKED that I make so little. I used to work at La Petite Academy, and I enjoyed working there, and after two years I made 5.45 an hour, which was more than most of the teachers because I have a degree in Psychology. Teachers at my center who had worked there for nearly ten years were not making even $6/hour. Now I work at Baby Gator Child Care at the University of Florida. I have worked at Baby Gator for two years and now make $17,000 a year. That is a whole lot better! After I got my job I was excited because it was so much more than the average child care wage. I told an ex-employer--I used to be a nanny--how much I made. I was bragging, thinking I was all that. She immediately burst my bubble and said, "Oh my, how horrible. I can't believe you can work with the University and they pay you so little." That brought everything back in to perspective. Not even $17,000 a year is a worthy wage. We have so much farther to go.

Today, throughout the country, public figures of all kinds were job shadowing in child care programs for the day, learning the hard way what demanding work this is, and receiving a symbolic, sobering "paycheck" for it when they're done.

Child care workers descended on legislatures and city halls to hold "story time for policy makers"--a reality check on the frustration of trying to stay with the work they love. There are plenty of stories to tell: I go to work sick because I don't have health insurance; I have a college degree, but my son in high school earns more as a grocery checker; The national average child care wage is $6.12 an hour--below poverty level for a family of three.

In Seattle, teachers are kicking off their union drive. It was Seattle who organized one day closures of centers every year for Worthy Wage Day to show that that their city needed childcare to keep working. While the city would shut down or slow down, parents and teachers would march and rally for worthy wages in childcare.

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