Pilot program to boost child-care wages

Jackie Phillips has worked at the Cradle to Crayons child-care center for 2-1/2 years. But at $8.30 an hour, she probably won't be there much longer.

"I've been here the longest," says Ms. Phillips, whose starting wage was $7 an hour - barely above minimum wage - despite the fact that she has an associate's degree in early-childhood education.

One reason Phillips remains at the center is the benefits, which are rare in the child-care industry, where sub-poverty wages and high-turnover rates are the norm. Phillips receives $100 a month toward either child care for her three children or toward health insurance.

She also gets one paid day of leave per month, federal holidays off with pay, and two annual training days. Yet just to reach the federal poverty level, Phillips would have to make $12 an hour.

Child-care workers in Washington State average only $7 an hour and turnover is high. To change that, the state is about to launch a two-year $4 million pilot program that will pay for raises based on a child-care worker's education, experience, and job responsibilities.

To qualify for the funding, child-care centers must give workers a minimum of 10 days paid leave per year and provide medical benefits.

But the impact of the program, set to begin next month, is limited. Grants will only be provided to about 100 centers and ultimately benefit a small fraction of the thousands of child-care providers who work in the state. To qualify, centers must be licensed and at least 10 percent of children must be from low-income families on public assistance.

The program sets minimum wages at $6.50 an hour, except in King County (which includes Seattle), where the hourly minimum is $7. But pay can reach $15 an hour, based on a teacher's qualifications.

"Washington's approach is unique and a very important first step in increasing the professional recognition, status, and wages of child-care providers," says Mary Tuominen, associate professor of sociology/anthropology at Denison University in Ohio. "Workers who provide care are among the lowest-paid in our society.... Parking-lot attendants and service-station attendants are among those who receive higher pay than child-care workers."

"The program will have a dramatic impact on our center," says Mike Kasprzak, director of the Interlake Child-Care and Learning Center, which serves about 60 children in Seattle's upper-middle-class Wallingford district. "It means that any given teacher is going to receive from 50 cents to $2 an hour more. For people on the $30-to-$40-an-hour end of life, that may not sound like much. For people in child care, it's pretty significant."

Despite Mr. Kasprzak's center being on the high end of the pay scale, with starting wages at $8 an hour, the center saw more than a 50 percent turnover rate last year - the highest in its 18-year history.

"Our turnover rate has been horrific. Fifty percent of the departures were related to money. They all said if they had their druthers, they would be working with preschool kids, but they see no economic future in it," Kasprzak says.

"Child-care workers are leaving in droves to find jobs that pay better," says Marcie Young, executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group. "In other industries, high demand equals higher wages and incentives. That's not the case in child care, because parents bear most of the financial burden. The market in and of itself is not going to solve the problem."

Although more than half of women with children less than a year old are in the workforce, many families still struggle to afford child care.

Supporters of wage-ladder programs like Washington's say that raising child-care salaries is not about having parents pay more. Rather, the point is to address the wage inequities between child-care workers and, for example, kindergarten teachers in the public schools. "When a child turns 5, all of a sudden there is significant funding because the public sector has taken it on," says John Burbank, executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, which helped develop the project.

While child-care workers are predominately women, it wasn't until men got more involved with parenting and familiar with the low compensation of child-care workers that the issue took on a wider scope. President Clinton made the issue a national one with his White House Conference on Child Care in 1997. And Washington's governor, Gary Locke, who supports the state pilot program, has children ages 1 and 3.

Another attention-getting device in Washington State has been unionizing efforts. Although interest in unionizing the child-care industry has grown, only 90 workers at 10 Seattle centers are union members. A new $200,000 King County program, however, provides qualifying child-care workers with pensions and collective-bargaining rights. "The governor's office would not have made this money available without the unionization effort catching its eye," says Kasprzak, who also serves as chairman of the Association of Child-Care Employers, which represents center directors and managers in Seattle.

"There have been unionizing efforts in the past in Massachusetts, and currently in Philadelphia. Seattle ... is moving in that direction in a more escalated way than other communities," Ms. Young says.

While child-care advocates are optimistic the state program will continue after the initial two years, they are less certain it will have a major impact on child-care wages and, ultimately, the quality of care. "Until we think about a public investment targeted to child-care jobs, we're not going to see much change [on a national level]," Young says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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