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The Fight for Higher Wages for Childcare Workers

Topics: Current Events
Image Credit: kali9/Getty Images

Today, like almost every weekday for the past three years, my wife and I dropped off our son Will at daycare.

Like all parents, our kiddo is the apple of our eye, and we wanted to make sure Will received impeccable care and early education, so we chose to send him to a Bright Horizons daycare located just a few blocks from our home. (Bright Horizons is one of the nation’s largest early childhood education companies.)

I feel extremely fortunate when I say that Will is a happy, healthy, funny and whip-smart little boy. He’s outgoing, he’s inquisitive, he’s talkative, he’s confident, and he enjoys life. But our family can’t take all the credit. Much of the person Will has become is due to the love, care and attention he receives from his early childhood educators—his teachers—at Bright Horizons.

Will’s teachers come from all over the world, some born and raised in Seattle and the surrounding area, and some are immigrants coming from Kenya and other distant countries. They’re white, black, Asian; Christian, Muslim, Jewish. They’re about as diverse a group of people as you could imagine.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

What they all have in common is that they spend their days giving tremendous amounts of love and care to Will, keeping him safe, happy and healthy, and teaching him about the world around him.

Which is why I was both saddened and hopeful when I read a February 23 article on CBS News about the efforts of a pair of New York parents whose child also goes to a Bright Horizons to secure higher wages for childcare workers.

Childcare Workers’ Salaries

I’ve always been aware Will’s teachers are paid a pittance for their work. Ask any parent about the hardest job they’ve ever done, and “parenting” will always be near or at the top of the list. And not only is it incredibly demanding work, but childcare workers are accountable for the safety and well-being of the children with whom they’re charged, a massive responsibility.

But as explained in the article:

According to government data from 2015, childcare workers make an average of $9.77 an hour. That’s only 68 cents more than the earnings of fast food employees and some others in the food and beverage industry. It is 83 cents less than what retail workers earn.

Childcare workers are looking after our children, keeping them safe and healthy, and educating them formally about math, science, reading and writing, and informally about the world around them. Despite the enormity of this undertaking, they’re paid virtually the same salary as the person who flips your cheeseburger at McDonald’s.

I find this abhorrent.

Like the parents in the article, Ryan Weiner and his wife Rebekah, Karaka and I pay a premium to send Will to Bright Horizons. As noted in the CBS article, tuition at a Bright Horizons center, “can cost more than $30,000 a year.”

The article goes on to say, “The publicly-traded company grossed nearly $360 million in 2015. It has over 100,000 students [at] 932 locations.” The article also notes Bright Horizons has “a market value of more than $4 billion.”

Again, according to the article, “[Bright Horizons says] that as much as 80 percent of tuition goes to teacher salaries, benefits and training,” along with medical and 401k plans, and “They claim to pay teachers more than the market average.”

But “the market itself may be the problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time childcare workers make about $20,000 a year, or $9.77 an hour.”

Low Wages and Turnover

In the two-plus years that Will’s been at Bright Horizons, more than half a dozen of his teachers have left to find higher-paying jobs. In two of his classes—Infant age and Toddler age—he experienced 100 percent turnover, meaning every teacher who was present when he began in that classroom was gone by the time he graduated into the next age group.

According to Michelle Rivest, executive director of the North Carolina Child Care Coalition—as quoted in the article— this kind of turnover can be “a devastating experience for a small child, because during those early years zero to five, they’re building attachments to the most important people in their lives, and that’s their parents or their teachers.”

I’m not faulting the teachers. How could I? I know from having spoken to many of them that they’re scraping by in Seattle, one of the most-expensive cities in the United States. (According to PayScale’s data, the median salary for childcare workers here is slightly less than $35,000 a year. Much higher than the national average, but still not much in Seattle.) If that were me, and I had the opportunity to make more money than near-minimum wage, why would I stay?

I also don’t have any insight into the finances of Bright Horizons, and the company may very well be putting 80 percent of their money into teacher salaries. But when a company valued at more than a billion dollars pays its most important employees such small salaries … I don’t know.

The Value of Educators in America

I do know American teachers in general are underpaid. This is in relation to the amount of responsibility they are given, the fact they’re preparing our country’s most valuable asset—our children—for the future, and that, according to the Brooking’s Institution, the median salary for American teachers is below the global average for industrialized countries when compared to the salary of similarly educated workers within those countries.

This last point is shameful. America is the ninth-richest country in the world, ranking just below Switzerland in GDP. Yet we’re 27th in relative pay for teachers, whereas Switzerland is 11th. Swiss teachers also make much more reasonable salary; when compared to other similarly educated Swiss workers, they’re close to parity. Conversely, American teachers make closer to half what similarly educated American workers make.

The benefits of early childhood education are immense; according to a well-known HighScope Perry Preschool Study:

… individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program ultimately earned up to $2,000 more per month than those who were not. Young people who were in preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and have longer marriages.

These benefits not only improve the life of the students themselves, but the lives of their families and fellow citizens.

It’s time to acknowledge the crucial role American teachers play in the development and education of our children at all ages, and it’s time to acknowledge teachers should therefore be appropriately paid for the significance of their job.

I applaud the Weiner’s efforts to raise the salary of Bright Horizons’ teachers, and I’ll be reaching out to see if there’s anything I can do to help.

Tell Us What You Think

What are your thoughts on the salary of early childcare workers? And if you have children, how do you approach childcare? We want to hear about your experience. Share with our community on Twitter, or leave your comment below.

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HI! I am going through this exact same thing with my children’s daycare center – Next Generation in Andover, MA. We are paying 90% of my husband’s salary for our 2 children to attend there. It was an incredibly difficult decision for us to make, but we have seen the social and cognitive benefits over the past 3-4 years. However, I also have concerns now that having our children in a school environment where their teachers, the people they look… Read more »

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