Child Care Providers in Washington Weigh a Strike as They Struggle to Stay Afloat Amid Pandemic

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Washington family child care providers are contemplating a strike, with union participants saying they're at their wits' end amid increasing pressure from the pandemic.

It would be the first statewide strike in history among child care providers, union leaders say.

The state says there is help on the way and the providers don't have the legal right to strike.

Even before the pandemic, Washington's child care sector was struggling. The cost of care was too high for most families, and providers were paid wages that often left them in poverty.

The system only had the capacity to support 17% of children under age 13 statewide, according to state-commissioned research from late last year. Washington had the sixth highest share of people living in child care deserts in the U.S., the Center for American Progress reported. This means demand for care far outweighs the licensed spots available. Much of Yakima County was considered a child care desert.

Child care instability was also costing the economy. State-commissioned research also found that in 2017, a "broken market" cost employers $2 billion from employee turnover related to child care issues. Another $3.7 billion was lost due to missed opportunities caused by child care disruptions, such as production cuts.

When the pandemic hit, child care workers were called essential and asked to remain open to support other essential workers, such as those in health care or agriculture, by caring for their children. As the pandemic has continued, they've been touted as essential to rebooting the economy.

But many have struggled — in Central Washington and beyond — amid mounting bills, diving income, increased safety protocol and lack of a medical safety net.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children found that among more than 6,000 providers surveyed nationwide in mid-November, more than half reported losing money every day they were open. Another 44% were unable to say how much longer they could stay open. Many providers reported taking on debt by buying supplies on credit cards, dipping into savings to stay afloat and resorting to layoffs to diminish overhead costs.

As of Monday, 740 licensed child care programs in the state were closed and not operating, according to figures from Child Care Aware. Of those, 37 were in Yakima County. Altogether, that diminishes child capacity in the state by 31,362, or 14% of total licensed capacity.

While it's unclear if those local closures are permanent or temporary, a March survey by NAEYC of 11,500 providers nationwide found that 50% were unable to survive a closure of more than two weeks without help. Another 25% said they didn't know how long they could close temporarily without support in reopening.

Pressure on providers

Both providers and union representatives from Yakima to the Puget Sound say even as they're asked to stay open to support the economy and allow parents to work, they are falling behind on bills and risking their safety. Attendance and income are far below normal, and state stabilization that helped pay providers for subsidized slots based on enrollment rather than attendance ended months ago.

At the same time, the cost of running programs has risen alongside the need for increased sanitation and safety practices. A fall grant from the state to help buoy providers is yet to be disbursed, with the last having come in late spring.

Lorena Miranda, a union representative in Yakima who runs an in-home child care program, said she is behind on countless bills.

"We need the help. It's hard for us to (keep) waiting," she said. "I haven't done my house payment. I haven't done my car payment. I still have to pay my water (bill) and all of that."

She said she was down to five kids in her care, but all were out sick last week — meaning no income at all.

One provider in Toppenish, Luz Sandoval, 48, had two children left in her care, down from 12 ordinarily. Another provider had only one child left in her care for the past several months, down from five or six ordinarily.

Local providers reported posting signs advertising openings at their program, or advertising through Facebook. But recruiting new families while many work from home or are unemployed is challenging, if not impossible, they say. Many said they feared they would close permanently if they didn't receive financial support fast.

"There's talks of strike because we don't know what else to do," said Miranda. "If we don't do something, we're not getting anywhere."

Mary Curry, a provider in Tacoma and president of the union chapter that represents family child care providers statewide, echoed Miranda.

"It feels as if they treat our community as if it's disposable as opposed to essential. They tell us we're essential. They need to treat us as such," said. "We don't try to place ourselves in line with the doctors or nurses. We applaud their work. But for them to go to work, we stay open."

Within the next week, Curry said the family child care chapter of the union SEIU Local 925 would vote on whether to take a one-day strike. If agreed upon, she said this would impact in-home providers; family, friends and neighbors providers; and small, independently owned centers. Based on provider data from Child Care Aware of Washington, which works closely with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, that could be well over 3,000 providers.

In the meantime, Curry said, the union and providers are asking parents to "link arms" with them in calling for government action instead.

One of her big concerns is medical benefits. In-home providers are opening their own home to potential exposure without any safety net if they need to seek medical care, she said.

It is a sticky point between providers and state officials, who say medical benefits are available.

State stabilization

The pandemic has been an additional challenge for an already struggling sector, DCYF officials concede. The agency has invested millions of dollars to stabilize the sector already this year, and additional grant funds are coming this week.

"DCYF is committed to stabilizing the existing child care infrastructure, so it is there as we move to economic recovery," Debra Johnson, DCYF's communications director, said via email. "DCYF also wants to support access to high-quality care for children and families."

Over $200 million has been invested in stabilizing child care since March, from grants to incentives for Friends, Family and Neighbors providers, she said. While these funds have helped, she said a state task force is preparing a report about additional resources needed.

In the meantime, the fall grant will be dispersed Dec. 16-18, she said. Providers who did not receive help in the first grant round have priority, but 2,574 spring recipients will receive funds this round, she said. Among them, 1,785 are family child care providers.

Johnson said the enrollment-based subsidy — which cost the state roughly $88 million between March 16 and Sept. 30 — ended due to a lack of funds.

"The state would need additional funding from the Legislature to resume payment based on enrollment," she said.

She said providers who provide subsidized care already receive health benefits through their union bargaining agreement. Others can access health benefits through the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, Johnson said. And while the state knows providers are struggling, she said bargaining law prevents the group from striking.

"Tough decisions have been made during this pandemic. However, we have worked to invest in the child care industry," she said. "We recognize that the child care industry is essential to a thriving economy and are committed to continuing our discussion with SEIU (Local) 925 in an attempt to find collaborative solutions. Providers may choose to stay open and provide care, as an essential service to our economy and front-line workers during this pandemic."

Curry, like many local Yakima providers, isn't sure that's possible. A union vote in the coming days will tell.

"We'll have a statewide strike vote to see if providers are at their wits' end to the level that a strike might have to happen," she said.

"Child care providers need a bailout," said Curry. "We appreciate the government being supportive of the field, but we would also like the funds to match that."

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka

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