Tired of working for minimum wage (or close to it), tens of thousands of childcare workers across the country have quit their jobs, many of them leaving for higher-paying positions at companies desperate to address staffing shortages.
According to the Washington Post, the childcare industry is still short some 126,700 workers after losing 10 percent of its workforce during the pandemic. It’s reasonable to expect that this decline will only grow steeper: More than a third of childcare providers have been thinking about quitting or shuttering their businesses altogether sometime in the next year.
Other sectors say they’ve been struggling to retain workers and attract new ones, but this issue is particularly disastrous when it comes to childcare because—though the pay and benefits for childcare employees certainly don’t reflect it—the industry forms the backbone of the U.S. economy. As the Post explains, the shortages daycares and preschools are experiencing have forced them to turn children away, leaving parents with few, if any, alternatives—and therefore few, if any, ways of returning to work.
But the situation has long been untenable for childcare workers, many of whom reached a breaking point over the last year and a half. One childcare worker, Tanzie Roberts—who long harbored dreams of becoming a teacher—quit in June after she received a raise of just 15 cents an hour during the pandemic.
“The pay is absolute crap for what’s required for the position,” Roberts told the Post. “I can’t afford to live on my own and work the child-care jobs that I am qualified for.”
Childcare workers are mostly women, overwhelmingly women of color, and many of them are mothers themselves struggling to make ends meet for their families on a median annual salary of $25,460. Their fates are tied to other working mothers by a labor market that pays childcare workers meager wages while charging the parents who employ them exorbitant costs. This is not an inevitable state of affairs: Last year, residents in Multnomah County, Oregon, voted to pass universal pre-K in a ballot measure which guaranteed higher wages for teachers as well as tuition-free preschool for three and four year olds in the county.
Biden first floated a federal universal pre-K program in March, and recently Democrats in Congress proposed putting about $450 billion toward childcare as part of a larger $3.5 trillion spending bill, with plans to raise wages for childcare providers and reduce or eliminate costs for families. The current childcare system, Biden’s Department of the U.S. Treasury wrote in a white paper last week, is “unworkable.”
Though Multnomah County’s universal pre-K policy won’t go into effect until 2022, it has already had some effect on workers in the community. After the measure passed in November, Olivia Pace, a local preschool teacher, told Jezebel she was finally beginning to think of her job as having a future: “I see it as something I can actually make part of my life long term and survive off of, now that I know that preschools will be treated the way that preschools are so often talked about being treated,” she said. “It’s just changed my entire idea of what’s possible.”