Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Give our kids’ caregivers a voice in their own future

John Burbank

John Burbank, Executive Director, EOI

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

Who is getting hurt most in this recession? It’s the workers among us who earn “too much” to qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, but don’t get much help from their employers for health care or any other benefits, for that matter. They make between $10 and $15 an hour and just try to do their best. Childcare workers find themselves among these workers just scraping by.

This economy has pushed down wages for almost everyone, so both parents go to work to make ends meet, and single parents have no choice whatsoever. So who takes care of the kids? They are too young for public school, but the family paycheck cannot be put off for four years. So these parents, playing by the rules, depend on paid child care for their kids’ well-being.

What are the ingredients for the best child care? It’s pretty simple: The childcare teacher’s morale and education, and her guidance and care for the children under her wing. And yet, the average wage for childcare teachers is $10.50 an hour, and almost half of these workers have no health care benefits.

Our government is waking up to the need for high quality early learning. The foundation of this quality is the well-being and compensation of the early learning workforce. We have made baby steps, but baby steps won’t go very far.

What can help is to enable child care center directors and teachers to have the choice to work together and negotiate with the state. This way they could help determine appropriate levels and qualifications for compensation, education, professional development and health care.

You think this would be a slam dunk, as child care teachers are responsible for our youngest children. It will be good for the children, for their parents, and for the businesses that depend upon reliable workers, showing up on time and every day. But apparently, as The Herald claims, with the budget deficit, this is the wrong time.

That’s an interesting argument: to put all responsibilities of the state to the side and just focus on the short-term budget hole. With that thinking, we would never have established Social Security, which was a product of the Great Depression, but didn’t begin paying benefits until a few years after it was implemented.

This proposal for collective bargaining between child care centers and the state contains the very same timing. The bargaining wouldn’t start until mid-year 2012, and whatever is agreed to won’t be ratified by the Legislature until the following year. So this would have no impact of government spending for the next three years. And by then we should be well on our way to economic recovery and in a strong position to invest in early learning.

We hear a lot about unions creating division between workers and managers. What is so unique about this proposal for collective bargaining is that it puts child care center managers and owners and workers all on the same side of the table, sitting down with our state government to negotiate appropriate support for compensation, subsidies and benefits. Together, they might figure out how our state can better supplement what parents can afford to pay for child care.

In bringing managers and workers together, the union agrees to not interfere with managers’ hiring and firing decisions. Instead, both managers and workers can focus on what should be the standards of employment in child care in our state.

Further, participation in totally voluntary. If a child care center wants to join, it can. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t have to.

Last year, a similar bill was passed through the House and ran into a lot of doubt in the Senate. The result was a good compromise that received bipartisan support, although it was opposed by Sens. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, Jean Berkey, D-Everett, and Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. And then the Legislature ran out of time. Let’s call that a Mulligan and move on.

This year, the Legislature has a new opportunity to help our youngest children by giving their caregivers a voice in determining their compensation and professional development. We cannot do without these caregivers, so let’s encourage the Legislature to do right by them. It is one step to rebuilding an economy that works for all of us.

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