Child-care workers weigh their options

As a child-care teacher for nearly 17 years, MaryEllen Schule knows all too well the twin perils of her profession: low pay and high turnover.

So when she and several colleagues watched a TV newscast last year about airline employees striking for higher wages, it sparked an idea: Why not organize a "virtual strike" for child-care workers? There would be no picket lines or noisy chants to disrupt the care parents depend on. Instead, a week-long series of events would call attention to the plight of providers, whose salaries average $15,000 nationwide, with few or no benefits.

The plan took hold. Late last month more than 100 child-care centers in New Hampshire, where Ms. Schule lives, participated in the virtual strike. Using ideas ranging from a governor's forum to leaflets and open houses at centers, they shared their message with thousands of parents, business leaders, and legislators.

"We don't need to do a walkout," explains Jackie Cowell, a director at the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire. "There is already a walkout happening. People are leaving the field."

Organizers see the virtual strike as part of a burgeoning new activism. After decades of low visibility and general silence, child-care providers are beginning to raise their voices and flex their muscles.

Workers in cities from Alexandria, Va., to Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle are forming organizations to lobby for better working conditions. Already the New Hampshire job action has sparked interest among advocates in other states. It also serves as a forerunner to a real strike by child-care providers in California, scheduled for May 1.

"People are not leaving this field because they want to, but because they have to," says Schule, of Henniker, N.H. "They can go to fast-food restaurants and retail stores and make more money. You think about how much money you'd be making if you had been in the business world for 15 years."

Schule also thinks about the money she and others must spend because health benefits are minimal or nonexistent. She pays more than $500 a month out of pocket for health insurance.

Until benefits like these are widely available, warns Jack Lightfoot, a program director at Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, the revolving door will continue. Turnover averages 30 percent to 40 percent a year nationwide.

One father supporting the virtual strike is Tom Weston, whose 5-year-old daughter, Holly Rose, has attended White Birch Community Center in Henniker for four years. During that time, he says, he has seen "an incredible turnover" of teachers who could not afford to stay.

Mr. Weston, an insurance regulator for the state, appeared at a staff meeting one morning wearing a colorful macaroni necklace his daughter had made at the child-care center. Attached to it was a tag reading, "I support my child-care worker."

"My wife and I couldn't afford to go to our jobs if there wasn't a place for Holly to go during the day," Weston explains. "I think of the good care she's received over the years, as well as the jump start in music, letters, numbers, and reading."

Other parents across the state sported buttons reading, "This employee was made possible by quality child care." Centers also invited employers and lawmakers to visit child-care facilities.

"I hope it's the beginning of something," says Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York, speaking of the virtual strike. "That doesn't mean I'm advocating strikes, whether virtual or real, as a solution. But it may be an effective way of re-engaging the public on a story that's now very old."

In another grassroots effort, Nancy Brown, a professor of early childhood education at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, Calif., is urging child-care centers in her state to close on May 1 so staff members can go to Sacramento for a "Care-Out" rally on the capitol steps.

Their mantra, she says, will be: "Parents can't afford to pay, and teachers can't afford to stay."

To dramatize the financial crisis, Professor Brown and other strike organizers are cutting pockets out of old clothes. They want supporters to mail them to lawmakers and business leaders with the message, "Our pockets are empty."

Already, Brown says, difficult working conditions are affecting the next generation of caregivers. Classes are shrinking as fewer students choose child care as a profession. She notes that greater professionalism and new demands on teachers, including a focus on literacy and school readiness, make the need for better wages more urgent than ever.

"Our basic premise is that the government needs to subsidize child care," Brown says, echoing the views of many child-care advocates. Yet she acknowledges that the premise is "terribly controversial," opposed by those who believe parents are responsible for their own child-care costs.

Parents pay 60 cents of every dollar spent on child care, according to Ms. Wohl. Another 39 cents comes from government - federal, state, and local. Employers and charitable groups contribute just 1 cent.

Wohl and other advocates argue that parents cannot afford higher fees. In every state except Vermont, Wohl says, the rates parents pay for child care are higher, on average, than the tuition at state-supported universities. "In some states, it's twice as high as college," she adds.

Noting that American parents are not required to pay the full cost of college, Anne Mitchell, a public-policy specialist at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, says, "If we expected to have a higher-education system that rested only on what families could afford, it would never work."

She adds, "The challenge of our time is to create an early learning system that rivals our higher-education system."

Joe Wilson, associate director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, uses military child care in the United States as an example of the possibilities better funding can produce. A dozen years ago, he says, military child care was "a national embarrassment." Then Congress mandated steady funds. In barely a decade, Mr. Wilson says, public funding for military child care has gone from $90 million to close to $400 million a year. Quality has been widely hailed as excellent.

Wilson calls the virtual strike in New Hampshire "a good first step." But, he says, the problem is "beyond virtual. People have to strike. It's in our collective best interest to make sure families have every resource that our society can provide to be sure children get a fair start in life and have equal opportunity to thrive."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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