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Lavida Reaves spent more than a decade working as an early childhood educator in a daycare center, nurturing young minds and bodies day in and day out for most of her 20s, while parents of infants and toddlers earned their life in other professions.

In her prime, after earning an associate’s degree in early childhood education, Reaves said she was making $ 1,200 a month working for a small community program in North Carolina.

She loved the close-knit community that her employer, Excel Christian Academy, provided. But she just couldn’t make ends meet, and she pursued a bachelor’s degree so she could make the transition to work in the public school system.

“The only reason I left was because I couldn’t afford to take care of my family,” Reaves, 32, told CBS MoneyWatch. “Now working with the school system I’m on $ 5,800 a month. It was a big jump.”

Educators, key to economic recovery, earn poverty wages in 40 states
Lavida Reaves said she couldn’t support a family while working early childhood education at a North Carolina daycare.

Lavida Reaves


Wage at poverty level

She’s not the only child care worker to quit a low-paying job in search of a living wage. Early childhood educators across the country earn a median wage of $ 11.65 an hour, according to the 2020 Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) Early Childhood Workforce Index. ) from the University of California at Berkeley. Young black educators earn an average of $ 0.78 less an hour than their white peers, the CSCCE reported.

Preschool teachers and directors of day care centers or preschools also earn low salaries, while kindergarten teachers earned $ 32.80 in median hourly wages in 2019, the CSCCE found, based on a survey. on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For a single adult without children, the median educator salary is considered livable in only 10 states, according to the report. The median gap between a child care wage and the living wage threshold in all states is – $ 0.96 an hour, according to the researchers.

“This largely female workforce has suffered from underinvestment for many years and many of this workforce must turn to public assistance to get by. Even in the best of circumstances, before the pandemic, early educators were already among the lowest paid workers in the country, ”Caitlin McLean, author of the CSCCE report, told CBS MoneyWatch.

McClean doesn’t blame child care providers, about 80% of which are small community programs. Many even work outside the home of caregivers.

“They cannot raise wages because the economy is not working. Right now, parents across the country are already burdened with childcare costs and can no longer pay, but at the same time, early childhood educators are subsidizing the system their low wages, ”says- she.

“The workforce that drives the workforce”

The underestimated, but still large, preschool workforce underpins the economy by allowing parents of children who are too young to enroll in public school systems to take a job themselves , say supporters of child care reform.

Indeed, the contraction of the industry during the pandemic led many working mothers to quit their jobs and careers. The coronavirus is responsible for nearly three million women exiting the U.S. workforce over the past year, in an exodus that reflects the broken child care system.

“We are the workforce that drives the workforce. Without us in place, parents cannot stay at work, return to the workforce or even look for work,” said Davina Woods, director of the Excel Christian Academy and former employer of Reave, North Carolina. .

Part of the infrastructure

Child care should be universal and federally funded, just like the physical infrastructure of our society, including roads and broadband internet, according to McLean.

“This is going to require significant increases in public funding and we have to understand that if we want good service, we will have to pay for it,” she said.

Woods said the pandemic has only exacerbated long-standing struggles within the industry. Many facilities have been forced to close as families remove their children for fear of COVID-19, and programs have incurred the additional costs of improving sanitation and adhering to pandemic safety protocols .

In the first six months of the pandemic, nearly 200,000 child care workers lost their jobs. In August 2020, the industry was 20% smaller than it was in February of that year, before the pandemic raged across the country, according to a calculation by the CSCCE.

“The industry is collapsing because there is no pipeline for the early education workforce. It is not a viable option,” said Woods. “There is nothing. We get low wages, a lack of benefits and a lack of respect that does not allow us to maintain and retain an educated workforce.”

Most of its 14 employees, who teach about 50 children between the ages of three and five, have second and third jobs at places like Target, Woods said. Some even rely on federally subsidized food and housing programs to get by.

“The funding is not there to raise salaries and provide stability, so my teachers continue to have to work multiple jobs because they still don’t earn a living wage,” she says.

More support for working parents

Businesses can also play a role in solving the child care crisis and retaining talent in their own businesses, according to prominent leaders.

David Merage, creator of Hot Pockets snack and current director of Consolidated Investment Group, believes companies should contribute to a childcare savings account for employees, as many companies do with the 401 (k ) s and health savings accounts.

It should be up to companies to ensure that their employees have access to child care services so that their workers can better focus on the task at hand – and benefit the companies they work for.

“I want my employees to be happy so that they can focus on the job rather than worrying [about child care]Said Merage.

Pyrena Hui, who along with her husband, Oscar Tang, runs a day care center in their San Francisco home, said the pandemic had only worsened existing financial problems.

Educators, key to economic recovery, earn poverty wages in 40 states
Pyrena Hui reads to children who are socially distanced outside at her home daycare in San Francisco.

Courtesy of Pyrena Hui


In March, she was looking after only one child, compared to the usual 14 children that her home establishment can take care of. Its costs have also increased.

“With fewer families, our income has decreased. But we also had to buy more personal protective equipment, our water bills were up because we had to keep washing our hands and we had to pay extra to disinfect the facility twice a day ”. she said.

The numbers have since rebounded. Currently, nine children are enrolled, but the social distance makes it difficult to accommodate an entire class, and for the moment, she does not receive a salary.

“Right now, I’m not paying myself until we are back to full capacity. At least now our earnings are better than before, with more parents deciding to return to the program, ”she said.

She agrees that workers like her have been largely ignored.

“Sometimes people don’t understand the importance of child care to economic recovery. Parents should be ready to return to the workforce, but if there isn’t enough child care, they can’t go back. Young infants are not the same as school. older children, they can’t sit in front of the computer and do distance learning, ”she said.

“An opportunity to reset and rebuild”

Childcare companies like Hui’s and Woods, whose struggles are similar to those of many others across the country, could use federal aid to help raise wages for workers while keeping rates affordable for families.

“It’s not the fault of the individual providers who struggle to provide care in their communities in these impossible situations,” said Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “What we need to do now that this pandemic has revealed how critical our healthcare infrastructure is, is invest our public funds in these systems. It is a need that the market alone cannot solve. We need public investment to make it work. “

At the very least, the pandemic has highlighted just how essential child care workers are to supporting a healthy economy, Poo said.

“We are now in this time of rebuilding our economy and we have the opportunity to reset and rebuild child care infrastructure to support families, jobs and the workforce,” Poo said. .

I would go back in a heartbeat

Indeed, early childhood caregivers can be passionate about the work they do, and many others would likely be up to the task if only it allowed them to put food on the table.

Reaves, who is now part of the public school system, said she still does not work with the youngest children, despite the unbearable income.

“I don’t think that by working now in the public school, I have the same presence in the life of the children as in the early childhood education where I could learn [about] each child, teach them, help them learn at their own pace and in their own way. It’s not personal anymore, ”she says.

If it wasn’t for the money, she would be back in the blink of an eye.

“I would rather be in daycare, but I can’t take care of my family that way. I have three sons after leaving daycare and entering the school system; my health care [benefit] is, wow, on top. My rate of pay is amazing right now, and I wouldn’t have been able to find the house I live in now if I hadn’t left and grabbed this job opportunity. It was holding me back. “

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