Willie Nelson sang, “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” We should double down on this lament when it comes to child care teachers. Child care workers are loudly lauded as essential workers, but they confront a career with no job security, lousy pay, few benefits, little respect and constant demands for care, learning, supervision and love … all for an average wage less than $17 an hour.
Our Legislature has studied this problem for 30 years, and, for 30 years, they have passed the ball to the next session. This is about to happen again. In 2019, the Legislature commissioned a study, “The true cost of quality child care in Washington,” with a final report due in November 2022. It arrived in mid-December, too late to impact the governor’s proposed budget.
The study acknowledges that child care teachers are grossly underpaid and then proposes that the Department of Children, Youth and Families study the issue for another two years and come up with recommendations for the 2025 Legislature. In the meantime, we can just let those child care teachers hemorrhage from this work, shifting to jobs at Dick’s, Target or just about any other place of employment that offers higher wages and a lot less stress.
An odd thing about the report is that it doesn’t come up with the total cost for the state. It looks at the cost per child, but it fails to extrapolate the cost to the state for quality child care.
Because it costs a lot of money, and no one wants to step up to that problem. Legislators haven’t found the political will to fund child care compensation, and the members of the task force who authored “The true cost of quality child care in Washington” have given them another reason to delay, simply by not making the calculation for this cost to the state.
A couple of years ago another legislative study, “Report to the Washington State Legislature: Compensation Technical Workgroup,” did come up with a calculation, slightly exceeding $1 billion a year, with wages and benefits lower than those recommended in the child care report.
So where does this leave child care workers? Working themselves into poverty. The Legislature appropriated about $36 million for child care compensation from federal pandemic relief funds. Now, that money is spent. The city of Seattle appropriated $3 million for child care worker bonuses in 2021, but that money is spent as well. It is relatively easy for public officials to appropriate money from federal sources. However, that political will disappears when it comes from the state’s general fund.
The new study referenced studies and initiatives in other states that could be models for Washington, focusing on California, New York City and the District of Columbia. Oddly, the task force completely ignored Washington’s own state law that put into place a highly lauded wage-and-career ladder for child care workers. The governor and Legislature actually funded this wage ladder starting in 1998, restarting in 2006 and then cutting off funding in 2014. Amid all the hand wringing about the cost and quality of child care and respect for child care workers, the wage ladder has remained unfunded for almost a decade.
In 2005, the Legislature passed and the governor signed the wage ladder law: “The legislature … finds that low wages for child care workers create a barrier for individuals entering the profession, result in child care workers leaving the profession in order to earn a living wage in another profession, and make it difficult for child care workers to afford professional education and training. As a result, the availability of quality child care in the state suffers.
“The legislature intends to increase wages to child care workers through establishing a child care career and wage ladder that provides increased wages for child care workers based on their work experience, level of responsibility, and education.”
Again, that was 2005. This is the state law. It remains the law, and it remains unfunded.
While it is probably too much to expect legislators to come up with $1 billion a year for child care compensation, it is certainly doable for them to re-fund the very program they voted into law 18 years ago and ensure that it includes all child care teachers. An appropriation of $100 million a year would be a decent start, a signal to the public that, when the Legislature talks about the priority of child care and respect for child care workers, they mean it.
Waiting another three years for any sort of movement is just another slap in the face to the workers who care for our children.
John Burbank is the founder and retired executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.