Tonia McMillian has been a childcare provider for over 20 years. After struggling with the problem-ridden industry for years, she now works with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to help her fellow childcare providers get the legal protections they need.
“We…go to provider’s houses…tell them we have a union now, explain what we’re doing, and listen to their concerns,” said McMillian.
Despite the $5.6 billion annual income of the burgeoning early care and education (ECE) industry in California, home childcare workers make on average $11,000 to $15,000 a year. The wages are significantly below the poverty line for a family of four, according to a study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
But as crucial as low wages are, SEIU organizer Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi says it’s not just wages that hold providers back.
“There are a plethora of issues, everything from not getting paid on time, reimbursement rates, training issues around certification and getting degrees,” said Jitahadi. “The reality is that they don’t make enough to stay in the business.”
Zandra Hawes runs a 24-hour childcare center from her home in Long Beach. Hawse believes that the work she and other childcare workers do goes far beyond just plopping kids down in front of a TV. They’ve become more like teachers than babysitters.
“Kindergarden is no longer teaching them how to tie their shoes…they want them to now walk in the door already knowing sight words,” says Hawes. “We want to be recognized for the educators that we are.”
The problems that the SEIU are fighting against not only make an impact on the members’ bottom line, but more importantly on the number of children and families that benefit from these services.
850,000 California children are currently served by the industry, according to a UC Berkeley Labor Center study. The help provided from ECE allows for a larger job market as well as the ability for parents to pursue higher education.
The children themselves gain the most from ECE. The study found “significant long-term benefits associated with children’s participation in high-quality ECE, including improved educational achievement, higher earnings and savings, fewer arrests and incarceration, and other reductions in public spending.”
Hawes and Jitahidi are only a few of the many providers that strive to make it their life’s work to provide for children. And, McMillian says that all they ask in return is for opportunities to voice their concerns.
“The top priority in this child care field is for child care providers, like myself, to have a seat at the table,” McMillan said. “Nobody can better discuss the work I do then me.”