Even With a New Union, California’s Child Care Providers Struggle Amid Pandemic

Miren Algorri first started hearing about child care workers’ unionizing efforts about 17 years ago, when her mother and other child care providers in California started to organize.

“I’m proud to say that my mom was one of the first providers to get involved with the union,” she said. “Back then, my mom would go to the meetings and travel to San Jose and to Sacramento, and I would stay behind and take care of the children [in the program].”

In the following years, Algorri went on to follow her mother into the child care business. Another generation of California kids would pass through her home day care in Chula Vista before she finally got the opportunity in late July to cast a vote that won the fight her mother had started. The union, Child Care Providers United (CCPU), was approved with about a 97 percent “yes” vote, and will now represent California’s estimated 40,000 family child care providers — infant caregivers and early childhood educators who receive public subsidies.

“It was more of a dream back then, and now it’s a wonderful reality,” Algorri told Truthout.

The election caps a long struggle led by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to gain collective bargaining rights for one of the largest and most marginalized care workforces in the country.

In California, most home-based child care providers are women of color, and four out of five earn less than the state’s median income, according to the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education. Their unionization was enabled through legislation that passed last year, AB 378, which granted home-based child care providers and early childhood educators the right to collectively bargain with the state government. The legislation had been stalled since the 2000s, due to repeated vetoes by Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

Family child care providers — who typically operate small day cares from their own homes, caring for about a dozen children at a time — are generally considered self-employed. Their income varies by county, meted out through a fee-based payment system administered by various agencies, providing about $200 for each toddler in their care. According to the CCPU, that could result in earnings well below minimum wage.

Collectively managing about 28 percent of licensed child care spots statewide, family child care providers have long been involved in advocacy around budget issues, a formal collective-bargaining process allows them to negotiate directly with the state for better pay and benefits. (CCPU will bargain on behalf of family child care providers statewide, while individual members’ affiliations will be divvied up by county under AFSCME or SEIU.)

In the 11 other states where providers have formed unions, there have been significant gains for both providers and families, including measures to expand access to child care for low-income families and reduce bureaucratic barriers to care in Maryland, Washington State and Oregon. And in Illinois, the child care providers’ union negotiated a health care plan for members, and are pushing for a retirement plan as well.

CCPU organizer Jono Shaffer said a major priority for the new union will be fixing the reimbursement system, which child care providers say routinely forces them to wait weeks to receive their subsidy payments, and securing funding so that providers are able to keep up with the state’s growing training requirements and regulatory standards. But the union will also take a community-based approach to advocacy — known as “bargaining for the common good” — by calling for universal access to child care, so that their services can reach every family who needs it.

Currently, families with children eligible for a subsidy under the state’s guidelines (the vast majority children of color) are not using them, often due to bureaucratic and structural barriers, such as long waiting lists, unavailability of a provider whose hours match the parent’s work schedule, or language barriers and red tape that discourage parents from applying for subsidies. Overall, an estimated 1.8 million, or three-quarters of children of working parents in California, do not have access to a licensed child care provider.

“The issue of access to affordable, quality child care for every kid in California is fundamental and central to our mission. That’s not something we’ll be able to bargain into a contract with the state, because that’s a budgetary issue [and] legislative issue,” said Shaffer. “But there are close to 2 million kids in California whose families qualify financially for a subsidy under the guidelines written by the state who don’t get a subsidy. And so that will be a major focus of the organization’s work going forward.”

Disappearing Child Care

“Most child care providers really sustain their community,” said Carolyn Carpenter, who started running a day care 30 years ago in California’s Bay Area. “But that doesn’t mean that we should be taken advantage of, because honestly, child care workers have been subsidizing child care [but] the government should be.”

Carpenter, who originally wanted to be a teacher but loves the flexibility of early education, is proud of her work. Her own children all graduated from her program. But her career has made her chronically financially insecure, even before California went into lockdown. She estimates her income will likely drop to about $20,000 this year. Yet she considers herself “really lucky because people are going out of business. I’m still able to pay my rent…. But at the same time, my income has gone down [and] my expenses have gone up.”

For the eight children remaining in her care, she has had to alter the way she operates. To reduce infection risk, the kids spend more playtime outside in the fresh air, though she noted that “kids do not naturally socially distance.” Indoors, her home has become an infection-control obstacle course, where she continually disinfects “high-touch surfaces” (she counted 91) and sanitizes the sink and toilet after each use.

Carpenter stressed that the system is failing parents as much as it is failing child care providers, by pricing so many kids out of care.

“You have to wonder what happens to those families and what happens to their kids,” she said, “because if they can’t afford child care, how do they work? And how many of them have either left California or how many of them are currently in our homeless population, or were those kids just bounced around from friend to friend or family?… We’re advocating not just for child care workers but also for the families we serve.”

Despite an acute need for child care, the state’s family-based child care sector is shrinking amid the pandemic. According to a survey by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), conducted in the second half of April, more than a quarter of family child care providers had shuttered. In a follow-up survey conducted from June 22 to July 1, more than three-quarters of child care providers who were still open reported a drop in enrollment during the pandemic, and were serving just over half of their pre-pandemic attendance. The child care programs that had remained open reported that in the previous month, about 40 percent of them had lacked adequate protective gear and cleaning and sanitizing supplies. About 10 percent reported shortages of food. Nearly three-quarters said they “felt their family’s health was at risk.”

The spate of closures comes on top of a long-term decline: since 2008, the number of home-based daycares in the state dropped by about a third.

Marcy Whitebook, director emerita of CSCCE, said the sector’s inequities are endemic to the structure of the subsidized child care system. The logic of parental subsidies is that the funding should “follow the child,” allocated to individual families to spend on private child care providers.

“Because our system is primarily market based … basically we have said as a country that child care is a private responsibility,” Whitebook said, “and we don’t see it as a public good, even though we know from day one, children’s care and education are intertwined.”

In reality, the system is as unaffordable for families as it is underfunded for workers. Because of the strict income guidelines for subsidies, parents in California earning $30,000 a year or more had to pay monthly co-payments of about $100 to $200, according to a 2018 study by the Urban Institute. Overall, the Economic Policy Institute calculates, the annual cost of care for an infant in California is a whopping $16,945 — consuming about a quarter of the median yearly income.

“Parents complain [about] our fees being too high … but at the same time, we’re [experiencing] the same thing,” mused Rosa Carreño, a San Jose-based family child care provider. “I can’t take care of a child for pennies a day when I also have to make enough to support my family.”

Caring During a Pandemic

The pandemic has intensified the inequities ingrained in a publicly funded, privately run child care infrastructure. Many family child care providers lack decent health care coverage, or even paid sick leave, and because they are mostly Black or Latinx and skew older, they are especially at risk for COVID-19 infection. Yet because they are so poor, Whitebook said, “you have people who were terrified to go to work, and terrified to lose their livelihood.… So it was awful in the best of times, and pretty egregious how we treat the workforce — and during this [pandemic], it’s been really heart-wrenching and maddening.”

But Carreño says the crisis has underscored how essential — and underappreciated — child care is. “During this crisis, we have continued to offer what schools have not been able to provide … it’s just very easy to see that our profession is essential,” she said. “All the time, not just in times of crisis. If I’m not here for my families, some of them might not be able to go to work.”

Since the 2000s, even without a formal union, CCPU mobilized as a member-based group to push lawmakers for reimbursement rate increases. They helped defend child care programs from budget cuts and pushed Gov. Gavin Newsom to offer temporary relief in April with an executive order to spend $50 million to subsidize child care for up to 20,000 essential workers, and another $50 million for additional supplies for providers.

Still, as the pandemic continues to ravage the economy, and family child care providers struggle to keep their doors open, their union could be facing a fierce budget battle in the coming months. Then again, they have been practicing for this fight for the last 17 years.

Algorri said that when she goes to the bargaining table, she will make the case that by raising the next generation of California’s kids, “you are shaping them into independent, self-motivated, successful citizens. This is a very important job. I think it’s the most important job, because … we’re shaping the future.”