Child care workers gain ground under Biden’s order

Just in time for Worthy Wage Day on May 1, President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that expands families’ access to affordable, high-quality care and provides support for care workers and family caregivers. At the same time, care workers from across the country met at a summit in Washington, D.C., to demand fair compensation, better working conditions, dignity and respect.

Sherry and Fed at ECE summit
OSEA member Sherry Beach (left) discusses her Head Start experiences at the summit with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram. Photo by Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance

During the summit, which featured some of the nation’s top labor leaders, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram joined Sherry Beach, an AFT member from Oregon, in a discussion about wages and working conditions for Head Start and other child care workers. Ingram also accompanied Beach to the White House to stand with Biden as he signed the executive order.

On the first day of the summit, Ingram expressed his admiration for child care workers. “We educate children in pre-K but you take them at age 1, you take them at 2,” he said. “Without you, there would be no preschool. I want to thank you and all our union siblings. The work you do, it matters. It’s because of you that families can work and have peace of mind.”

Tammie Miller, a member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, revved up summit-goers with an impassioned call for justice.

“We are not babysitters!” she declared. “We will not be invisible. The days of pleading for dignity and respect are over. We are demanding that we earn a living wage in this country. Elected officials must respond when we put them in office!”

Today, Miller said, workers are standing up for what’s right, and the workers themselves will get to define what “right” looks like. During the pandemic, she said 85 percent of care workers kept their doors open. They also delivered food to families and made sure they were doing OK.

For being the essential workers who sustained the economy through those horrendous times, she said, now is the moment to demand that workers can’t wait any longer for enough pay to support a family. Then Miller led the crowd in a chant of “Care workers can’t wait!” that morphed into a chant of “El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido!” (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”)

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler reinforced the importance of care workers to the economy. She explained the urgency of this moment to politicians in terms they could understand: Millions of baby boomers are aging. “The United States is going to lose $290 billion in GDP (gross domestic product) if we don’t fix this,” she said, “so this has to be a moment of change.”

Shuler added that Americans think child care workers make about $20 an hour. The reality is that they average about $13 an hour. And when you ask Americans what they think child care workers should be paid, they say $27 an hour.

“We, the labor movement, are with you every step of the way,” Shuler said. “And we are going to win!”

What’s in the order

President Biden on April 18 issued more than 50 directives to nearly every Cabinet-level agency, expanding access to affordable, high-quality care and providing support for care workers and family caregivers. AFT President Randi Weingarten praised the executive order, which she referred to as a reflection of the president’s “family-first agenda.”

Among many other initiatives, the order will boost job quality for early educators. Early care and education professionals are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, the White House acknowledges. Child care workers earn a median wage of less than $18 an hour, while the typical nonsupervisory worker in the United States earns over $28 an hour.

To address this disparity, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will take steps to increase the pay and benefits for Head Start teachers and staff. HHS will implement policies so that more child care providers receive higher reimbursements for the children they serve. And the U.S. Department of Education will encourage grantees of the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program—which helps thousands of student-parents across the country pay for care while going to school—to improve the quality of their services, including higher wages for child care workers.

The order will make child care and long-term care more accessible and affordable for families. It will support family caregivers, engage communities and ease construction of early childhood facilities for Native American tribes. It also will make it a little easier for care workers to join a union, by directing the U.S. Department of Labor to publish a sample employment agreement, so that both workers and employers can better understand their rights and responsibilities.

Bread and roses

At the summit, Ingram and Beach, president of her chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association in Eugene, held a panel discussion on how to succeed at negotiating a union contract.

A Head Start teacher for 26 years who just negotiated her 16th contract, Beach said she loves her job because every day she has the privilege of teaching 3- to 5-year-olds and making sure they feel valued and safe. But she said teachers are seeing more kids with IEPs and more behavioral problems, and her center is so extremely short-staffed that she hadn’t been sure she could make it to the summit—and had to fly back so she could work the very next day.

What’s more, she has found that not only do many Head Start staff have to use Head Start for their own children because they are verging on poverty, but they get responses like this when they ask for a raise: “Well, you knew that when you took this job” and “You’re not in it for the money, you’re in it for the kids.”

Clapping back, Beach has just negotiated a contract with minimum 10 percent pay increases (cheers from the crowd) and retroactive pay.

Support each other, Beach said, and know your rights. She quoted rock-and-roll icon Tom Petty: “Stand your ground. Don’t back down.”

Earlier in the summit, another care worker made a statement in Spanish that was translated into English: “Our job is a beautiful thing, but we don’t get paid enough. We also are human beings, and we also deserve the good things in life.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably know your labor history. But if not, look it up: She was talking about bread and roses.

[Annette Licitra]