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Child-Care Workers Start to Take Care of Themselves

In some states they begin to press for better pay, benefits, and even consider striking.

April 05, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONCORD, N.H. — With no health benefits and salaries slightly over poverty level, child-care workers in the Granite State decided to mobilize as a political bloc. Now these unlikely rebels have grabbed the ear of the governor--not to mention a state legislator who runs five day-care centers.

For months, dozens of early childhood teachers have staked out the capitol. They buttonhole legislators and lobby them with the goal of state-sponsored benefits. Every day, they stage a "budget watch" in finance committee hearing rooms. Often they persuade lawmakers to stop by their centers and spend time with the toddlers, just to show they do more than baby-sit.

Among this largely female work force, revolution is in the air. "From where I sit," said Claudia Moore of the New Hampshire Child Care Assn., "I think we're cranking up for another Boston Tea Party."

The activism in New Hampshire--where on any day about 40,000 children are in some form of day care--is part of a broad national effort to increase standards and compensation for a historically underpaid field. And it comes at a time when President Bush has proposed slicing $200 million in federal child-care grants.

Two states, Rhode Island and North Carolina, already offer benefits to child-care workers. And the grass-roots effort here has spread across state borders. In neighboring Vermont, child-care workers have formed a group called Kids Are Priority One to pressure legislators, and the state's sole congressman, Independent Bernie Sanders, launched a bipartisan caucus on child care.

Caregivers in Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia also have organized to agitate for better work packages. In California, many child-care workers are discussing the possibility of a May 1 strike, dubbed a "care-out."

But Carolyn Carney, chair of the child development department at California's Monterey Peninsula College, said organizing her state's child-care workers for a strike has been difficult. "They know that if they strike, the parents are going to be stuck," Carney said.

Wages and benefits for child-care jobs are so low that in her county, Carney said, "we have had positions that have been open for months. Some classrooms can't even open because they don't have the staff. And even if you have the money to pay substitutes, there's no one to hire." All of which makes the efforts in New Hampshire "even more impressive, absolutely," Carney said.

In New Hampshire, teachers like Amanda Charron say they've turned political to remind the public that providing support for child-care workers not only helps parents and teachers but also aids business, which depends on a reliable work force. Without good child care, she noted, working parents can't do their jobs.

Caring for 10 toddlers (mostly boys) at the White Birch Community Center in nearby Hennaker, Charron said she earns $14,000 a year--which happens to be the national average for all child-care workers. The current federal poverty level income for a family of four is $16,700.

Even when it means shepherding her 10 toddlers to Chuck E. Cheese's, Charron said she loves her job. But as a single mother who lives with her parents because she can't afford her own place, she said said working in child care is not economically feasible. "If I could make more money, I would stay teaching toddlers for the rest of my life," said Charron, 25. "But right now I could be making more money at McDonald's. I can't afford to do this much longer."

Her frustration took her to the statehouse, said Charron, who never imagined herself boldly confronting lawmakers. "This is all brand new to me," she said.

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One state legislator who requires no encouragement on the subject of better conditions for child-care workers is Democratic Rep. Mary Jane Wallner. As the administrator of five child-care centers, Wallner has unsuccessfully introduced a number of bills to benefit the profession during her 22-year tenure. "We have a lot of education to do," she said.

Just how much work lies ahead became clear in a statehouse interview last week with New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen--a Democrat whose three daughters spent time in child care.

Shaheen commended her state's early childhood workers for "their efforts to educate the public" about their profession. But the governor said the 2.5%, first-ever state sales tax she has proposed to cover long-term school funding does not include benefits for day-care workers.

"Given the budget challenges the state faces, it probably isn't going to happen with state dollars," said Shaheen, who instead has urged an appointed business commission to pursue the matter.

But Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Committee in New York, cautioned against relying on business. Wohl said only one penny from every child-care dollar spent comes from the private sector--against 60 cents from parents and 39 cents from government subsidies.

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