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Opinion | Child care workers are important. So why don’t we pay them more?

The pandemic has brought a welcome and long-overdue focus on child care as the bedrock component of a functioning economy and an essential service to support working families. Yet the simple fact remains: Wages for child care workers are so low that many of them can’t even afford to bring their own children into the centers where they are employed.

Elisabeth Tobia
Elisabeth Tobia is the CEO of an early learning center in Lansing, Michigan. (Courtesy photo)

The mean hourly wage for child care workers in Michigan is $12.30, 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show. That’s 3.5 percent lower than the 2021 federal poverty guidelines for a family of four of $12.74 per hour.

A stark infographic published in 2019 by the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children places child care worker wages in this state slightly above those of parking lot attendants and below those of manicurists. Practically speaking, earnings in the child care field are so low that these workers are far better served by getting a job teaching in a K-12 school system.

I have seen this happening at centers in mid-Michigan, including my own. Viable candidates for teaching positions have turned us down in favor of more competitive wages in the public schools, leaving us to function below our enrollment capacity despite having waitlists of parents and families who desperately need child care. For almost a year now, we’ve even had to shorten our operating hours in order to maintain our quality levels with fewer employees. My contemporaries at other centers report they are facing this same reality.

It is long since time to elevate the profession of early learning. To attract and retain the dedicated workforce at the heart of our program, my center’s board of directors passed a new budget last month overhauling our wage scale so that staff will be compensated in a manner befitting their credentials, skills, and experience. With this overhaul, we are making a statement about valuing our employees enough to pay them a living wage. Going forward, any full-time employee will earn no less than $15 per hour.

Where is the money coming from? As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government acknowledged the importance of accessible, affordable, high-quality child care by allocating $39 billion for families, providers, and teachers. Most families have already started receiving federal child care relief in the form of $250 to $300 in additional child tax credits per month per child, and the State of Michigan has been allocated approximately $700 million in federal stabilization funding for child care providers as part of its upcoming budget. While we don’t yet know what portion of those funds will come to our center, we plan to use what we get to fortify our commitment to the staff and our ability to attract and retain highly-qualified instructors.

This initiative is much more than a competitive strategy. It is a call to action. Child care workers everywhere, including Michigan, should be paid for supporting working families and shaping our children so they are ready to learn and become the best version of themselves. We hope other child care providers will follow our lead, and that everyone who stands to gain from having an available and engaged workforce will validate these changes.

Policymakers in Lansing, as well as those in Washington, need to be rallied to follow through with child care funding. Michigan’s legislators can waste no time passing a budget that includes enhanced support for child care and early learning, and federal legislators need to make permanent the funding established this year to support families and child care workers.

In addition, more research on the child care workforce is needed in order to better understand how these government investments impact states and local communities.

We pay our K-12 and college educators something closer to the contributions they make to our children’s potential. It is time we value those who touch and teach our children at arguably the most important point in their lifelong learning something consonant with their work and worth.

A version of this article was published in Barron’s on Sept. 10, 2021.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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