Pamela Sharp’s day starts at 5:30 a.m., when she gets up to make breakfast for the children she watches all day in her home. She’s open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week.
Sharp says she provides children with more than oversight. She says the kids read together and talk about their goals, that teachers and parents say children from her program excel when they go to school.
But she doesn’t feel like she gets the dignity she deserves.
“We are treated as nothing. Nothing. We are not looked upon as professionals – we are looked over,” Sharp said of home-based child care providers. “It’s very difficult to be taken seriously doing what I do.”
People like Sharp are the reason the group Raising California Together is working with the Service Employees International Union to unionize providers who use their homes to care for children in state-subsidized programs.
Their goal is passage of Senate Bill 548 by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. Democratic leaders failed to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to include unionization in the budget measures he signed this month, but they are pressing forward with the stand-alone legislation.
SEIU says the measure would affect tens of thousands of home-based child care providers who are underpaid and need help fixing the state-contracted agencies that distribute their money. The proposal would be significant – the biggest boon for labor in a state-funded industry since 1999, when legislation helped in-home care workers unionize.
In California, government-assisted child care is provided by a complex network. The state Department of Education runs some preschool programs and provides slots in child care centers or in family homes affiliated with them.
Sharp, and those like her, watch over children whose parents are enrolled in the “voucher” programs that make up the rest of the pie.
Under that system, families first must visit either county welfare offices or local nonprofits called alternative payment agencies. The agencies tell them the size of the subsidy they qualify for and pay the money to the child care provider chosen by the family.
For small, in-home licensed providers serving many low-income families, the value of the vouchers, which is set based on the local market rate for care, is essentially a salary. The SEIU and its coalition, citing government reports, say pay for providers can be lower than $5 an hour.
“These are women who are often paid below the minimum wage,” de León said. “I think you can improve their wages unquestionably, because they are so poorly paid.”
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state budget signed last week will increase the reimbursement rate that dictates pay for some providers by 4.5 percent, at a cost to the state of $44 million. The SEIU and its coalition say that’s a start, though they still think more can be done.
But Tonia McMillian, co-chair of Raising California Together, said her support for a union isn’t just about the amount providers are paid for her work. She said the system of agencies and nonprofits that provides much of her income is so badly mismanaged that it has sometimes left her without compensation for months at a time.
Once, she said, she did not receive pay from an alternative payment agency for two months when a parent forgot to indicate on a form which school one of her three sons attended. Raising California Together’s team also says providers often lose pay when they aren’t notified that parents have become ineligible for subsidies.
McMillian’s alternative payment agency did not respond to a request for comment on the union group’s claims. Department of Education administrator Guadalupe Romo-Zendejas said the department relies on parents to notify their provider when their situation changes.
“They can’t continue to live like this,” said Mary Gutierrez-Khopkar, child care campaign director for the SEIU. “(McMillian) can go and say, ‘Here’s my issue,’ and they don’t have to do anything about it. We’re done meeting with people ... we’ve tried everything for 11 years, and now we need collective bargaining rights.”
Republican lawmakers opposed to the unionization measure argued during a floor debate in the Senate that the state’s costs could rise considerably under unionization. They said the change also could result in higher child care costs for people who use the in-home care but don’t qualify for assistance.
“Californians are already struggling to afford daycare for their children, and this bill will increase the cost by furthering restricting competition and choice of care through unionization ...” said Senator Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove.
The National Right to Work Committee, which opposes the bill, said providers who didn’t want a union would still be forced to accept any training or procedural requirements the union worked out with the state.
Child care providers have unionized in other states across the country. In Illinois, an Abt Associates study funded by Harvard and the federal government looked at the the effect of the change using data from 2002 through 2008. The study found that costs did rise: on average, the monthly cost of a subsidy for one child rose about $26.
De León said he found the concern about costs “baffling.”
“It’s a strange argument considering that (child care workers) are getting less than minimum wage,” he said.
Governors have worried about costs, too, however. In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed another de León bill for child care unionization.
“In light of the current structural budget deficit,” he wrote in his veto message, “it is imperative that we balance our fiscal reality and the need to provide services to working families.” He also argued increased costs could reduce the number of slots available in child care programs.
Brown told reporters in unveiling his budget plan that he “has not supported” a unionization measure. De León nevertheless is moving the bill to the Assembly.
“Our plan is still to move the idea policy-wise forward as we continue to engage with the governor,” de León said.
Sharp remains hopeful. “I would say that he needs to take another look, sit down and talk to us again – hear us when we say this is a necessity for us,” she said. “When you leave the person who’s doing the work out of your decision making, you have no idea the devastation that you’re causing.”