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Child care workers’ crucial role spotlighted in roundtable talk

Photo Credit: Getty.
By Pete Levine ·
Child care workers’ crucial role spotlighted in roundtable talk
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden

Child care workers play an essential role in our society. It’s a role that for too long has been overlooked yet has become more difficult and more crucial throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual roundtable discussion Monday, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, Child Care Providers United (CCPU) member Miren Algorri, and AFSCME Local 2376 (Oregon AFSCME) member Marissa Wilson joined Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Don Graves and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to examine how central child care workers are to society, and why investing in the care economy must be a priority in the future.

The roundtable, which was moderated by Melissa Boteach, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center, also made the case for how child care workers are a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure.

Saunders described how crucial child care workers are to our economy yet how they have been overlooked and underpaid.

“Child care is one of the lowest paid professions in the country, with average wages of less than $12 an hour,” Saunders said. “Many providers live below the poverty line and without access to basic benefits, despite increasing requirements for credentials and education. Recent data show that over half of child care workers were enrolled in some form of public assistance.”

Saunders added that home-based child care businesses, like those run by many AFSCME members, are often more affordable than center-based care and provide smaller, more personal settings.

“Many family child care providers offer flexibility for families who don’t have a traditional 9 to 5 schedule,” Saunders said. “By offering early care, late care and even overnight care, these providers have been a lifesaver during the pandemic, allowing health care and other essential front-line workers to work long and irregular hours serving our communities.”

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Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Don Graves

One of those essential workers is Wilson, who works as a transition coordinator at the Deer Ridge Correctional Facility in Oregon.

A mother of two children with disabilities, Wilson was without child care during parts of the pandemic and desperate for it as she and her husband stitched together a dizzying schedule so that they could care for their kids and work.

“I would wake up at 3 a.m. and work till 8 a.m., then switch with my husband, who is a farmer, so he could go to work. I would be with the children online,” recalled Wilson. “When my husband came back home, I’d go back to the correctional institution and finish the rest of my day. The bottom line is workers like myself need child care options that go beyond the 9 to 5.”

Wilson added that this year also showed how important paid leave is.  

Miren Algorri, who’s also a UDW/AFSCME member, described what it was like to be a child care provider during the pandemic. Algorri, a second-generation provider, found herself working around the clock to keep the doors of her child care center open.

“It was a struggle early on to get our hands on the (personal protective equipment) we needed. I would sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to try and get supplies. And we also had to change how we cared for our children – ensuring minimum physical exposure while not being emotionally distant,” said Algorri.

She said she also had to take on new roles.

“We expanded our roles from being early childhood educators to mentors, helping school-aged children with distance learning,” she said.

Algorri credited San Diego County and the state of California with providing her and child care providers like her with the support they needed to weather the financial storm brought by the pandemic (at moments during the pandemic, her enrollment dipped to zero). She also credited the local and state governments with providing the parents of the kids she cared for, a large percentage of whom came from families of essential workers, with vouchers so they did not need to pull their kids from her care permanently.

In responding to a question by Wyden about what the federal government could do to help child care workers like her, Algorri said: “Make sure we’re paid fairly like teachers and have access to good health care and retirement.”

CCPU members approved a historic contract – their first – with the state of California last month. It includes long-overdue pay raises for providers, investments in continuing education for a workforce that’s dominated by of women of color, and critical investments to strengthen access to care for working parents and support California’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graves said it’s time to reimagine a new American economy.

“Care infrastructure is a moral and economic imperative. In order for you to go to work, you need to know your loved ones are being taken care of,” Graves said. “Caregivers have been unseen, underpaid and undervalued. To build a strong economy, we need a strong care economy. We need better wages, benefits and support.”

Graves said that President Joe Biden plans to help child care workers through the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan.

Asked why the issue of early learning has been so important to him, Wyden highlighted the often-overlooked link between physical infrastructure and human infrastructure.

“I strongly support improvement in physical infrastructure but equally important is investing in people. If workers don’t have adequate child care, you’re not tapping the potential for high skilled jobs in America,” Wyden said. “We want to make sure that children don’t fall between the cracks.”

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