Reopening Isn’t Enough — Child Care System Must Be Transformed, Providers Say

When working parents across the U.S. were sheltering at home during the pandemic, Lucrece Lester had already been working from home — running a small daycare business out of her house in Contra Costa, California. At the same time, her job put her, the kids she cared for, and her own family, on the front lines of the pandemic.

Lester recounted the painful process of shutting down her program twice during the pandemic. First she had to close when she got infected with COVID-19 in September: “A child brought COVID in. I contracted it, of course, and my entire family got COVID, and we were closed for about a month. And I was extremely sick … and it was just an experience that was just horrible,” she told Truthout.

Even while her program was closed, the kids were still on her mind. “I [was] also checking on the families, because I realize that there are some children who live with their elderly grandparents,” she said, “and just [have] that worry.” She eventually reopened after undertaking extensive cleaning of her workspace, she added, but shut down again last February due to a positive COVID test for the family of the same child from whom she contracted the virus originally.

“We’re put in these situations every single day,” she said, “where we’re here, providing care, opening our doors through this entire pandemic with little appreciation.”

When the pandemic swept through California last year, shuttering workplaces and schools across the state, many child care providers like Lester stayed open in whatever way they could. Licensed family child care homes — small neighborhood-based daycare programs located within the provider’s home — care for about 30 percent of the nearly 1 million California children enrolled in formal child care. (The rest are served by full-scale daycare centers.) Although they provide the same kind of infant care, preschool lessons and recreational activities that larger daycare centers do, home-based daycares tend to be less financially stable than conventional centers, yet also tend to have a more intimate relationship with the communities they serve. Many of the more than 26,000 licensed individual providers are low-income women of color running tiny businesses serving local families.

After more than a year of lockdowns and temporary and permanent closures, advocates for child care workers fear the network of family child care homes, already badly strained before the onset of the pandemic, is in deep crisis.

The California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, which distributes payments and oversees licensed family child care providers, reports that an estimated 3,665 family child care home licenses have been lost between January 2020 and January 2021 in the state, a roughly 14 percent drop over the course of the year. (That does not include unlicensed family child care homes, which care for a smaller number of kids.) Meanwhile, though many licensed family child care homes that had closed early in the pandemic have been incrementally reopening in recent months, reopenings have lagged well behind closures: In the last half of 2020, the number of child care homes closing each month was well above 200, peaking at 1,330 last September, while the number of monthly reopenings hovered between 141 and 84.

The child care workforce as a whole — comprised of employees of child care programs — has also declined, from about 80,000 pre-pandemic to less than 64,500 as of April. Similarly, national data indicates between last February and October, the child care industry lost some 17 percent of its pre-pandemic workforce.

Many family child care providers are still devastated by the pandemic. Enrollments declined sharply as parents withdrew their kids. Some providers became sick themselves. Many providers faced challenges due to strict health protocols that required them to constantly sanitize their facilities. According to a survey conducted last July by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), home-based providers across California saw a massive drop in enrollment and were often forced to lay off staff members.

Home-based child care providers, whose enrollment is typically limited to 12 or 14 kids, generally faced more severe financial damage from the pandemic, compared to daycare center operators: about half said they had been “unable to pay themselves at some point” — while only 28 percent of center-based providers did — and were more likely to report taking on personal credit card debt to stay open, or missing a mortgage payment. Of the providers who had shut down in California, 75 percent of family child care providers said they “felt their family’s health was at risk,” more than triple the rate of their center-based counterparts — not surprising, given that they live where they work.

Marcy Whitebook, director of the CSCCE, pointed out that family child care homes face “a double whammy,” because they are not only less financially resilient, but also face unprecedented logistical challenges in the COVID era, including keeping children safely separated in a space that is often just a cordoned-off area within a modest-sized house. “The job has really changed a lot because of the social distancing, because [of] the level of stress children are under,” especially when trying to keep rowdy toddlers separated from both teachers and each other.

Noreen Jackson, who has been running a family child care home serving South Central Los Angeles for about two decades, said that the cost of maintaining her small staff became unsustainable during the pandemic, as she and her staff ran virtual classes while keeping them separated throughout the day. “The children have to be spaced out, and then you have the teacher, that’s [my] employee, going into each section to actually teach … I was only able to give each child 15 minutes of learning at a time.”

Sometimes earning just a few hundred dollars per month, she says the payment collected from her current enrollment is “not allowing me to climb out of the barrel.” She finds ways to eat the rest of the costs herself, like when she shares the group meals with the kids to save money on food. “When the kids eat, I eat,” she said. “And [for] the staff — I can’t financially afford to pay for their food, so when we all eat, we all eat together. So that’s helping us financially.”

Since home-based child care providers are technically considered self-employed, they do not earn regular wages, but rather derive their income from the fees and subsidies paid by parents or by the state. The child care reimbursement rates for a typical family child care home in Los Angeles for 2018 ranged from less than $60 per day for an infant to just over $40 a day for a school-age child. After paying the overhead costs like utilities and supplies, child care providers are in many cases left with the equivalent of a poverty wage, which is compounded by a lack of paid sick leave and other benefits.

The child care workers employed by daycare providers are earning extremely low wages as well. Roughly 17 percent of early childhood education workers in California are living in poverty — nearly seven times higher than the rate for elementary and middle school teachers.

Although the state has subsidized supplies for cleaning and infection control during the pandemic, many home-based child care providers have struggled with staffing costs. “Many of us have employees that we have to pay minimum wage and all of these other things too, and yet we don’t make the minimum wage,” Lester said. Her union, the newly certified Child Care Providers United (CCPU), managed to push the state to offer additional paid leave time for home-based child care providers, which kept her from losing compensation for the days she lost when her program was closed temporarily (normally home-based child care providers lack paid sick days, but are allowed only 10 paid “non-operational days” in a year). But, she added, “We should not have to fight for something that should be given to us.”

Long-term economic security is imperative for CCPU members. Without a stable income, retirement savings or even health insurance in some cases, Lester said, “We are definitely on our own … you have a lot of women who are in this profession, minority women, sometimes single women … and they’re working in this profession until they’re beyond retirement age, and it’s because there isn’t another alternative.”

The same system that fails to pay child care workers fairly simultaneously prices out many poor parents. In California, according to Kidsdata.org, licensed family child care homes tend to be cheaper than daycare centers, at about $11,700 a year, but still prohibitively costly for typical working poor families. Even parents who are eligible for subsidies may not be able to find a spot — many programs have long waiting lists. Pre-pandemic, there were no child care slots available for an estimated three-quarters of children aged 12 and under with working parents. According to CCPU’s research, prior to the pandemic, some 60 percent of Californians lived in a “child care desert” with no child care provider that they can afford within their zip codes. For families of color, the child care deficit is even worse at about 70 percent. The union warns that the crisis is likely to deepen now that many providers permanently shuttered during the pandemic.

Yet the early childhood education system in California may be due for a shake-up soon. One of the bright spots of the pandemic was the victory of the CCPU in a landmark statewide union election last year, providing about 43,000 licensed and unlicensed home-based child care providers with an official union. Organized jointly under AFSCME and SEIU — the two leading unions representing homecare workers and child care workers across the country — the CCPU is currently hammering out a first-ever union contract with the state government.

The union recently negotiated immediate relief for members, including extra payments of $600 per child and a $3,500 “stabilization stipend” for licensed providers who have suffered losses due to the pandemic.

In the long term, CCPU is demanding “child care for all” — a system of publicly funded early childhood education from infancy through school age, in which no subsidized parent would need to pay a fee. The union is advocating for a simultaneous dramatic expansion of the child care infrastructure, including programs that operate off-hours and serve kids who have special needs, while providers would in turn receive living wages along with health care, paid leave and retirement plans. Lastly, the union is calling for streamlining the state’s child care bureaucracy so families have a stable source of care, and payments to providers are not delayed.

Additional help may be coming from Washington soon. In addition to a funding infusion from the latest relief package passed by Congress earlier this year, the Biden administration’s American Families Plan promises to invest $425 billion in child care subsidies and early childhood education programs, with the aim of both expanding access and raising wages. Under the plan, most low- and middle-income families would pay no more than 7 percent of annual income for child care. In California, that would cover households earning up to $120,660 a year.

CCPU spokesperson Mila Myles said via email that the promise of a federal funding boost was a hopeful sign for a system “on the verge of collapse” — and that it would be a first step in a longer struggle.

“Family child care providers need transformational change with this funding,” Myles added, “not just bubblegum and scotch tape knitting together disparate programs and networks.”

Jackson thinks many child care providers like her will find a way to stay open despite the damage wrought by the pandemic, because the people who’ve relied on her the most — the hundreds of children she’s helped raise in her neighborhood — know the real value of her work. “Those kids are going to bring their kids back,” she said. “They’re going to seek the quality care provider, and they’ll understand the value that child care providers hold.”