A Major Union Push to Organize Child Care Providers in California

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A new law granted workers the ability to collectively bargain with the state, an effort that union organizers are calling “historic.”

Thousands of child care providers in California could have a chance to negotiate with the state for better pay and benefits if a labor organizing push that is now underway goes as planned.

Proponents say this is a crucial campaign for child care workers who are poorly compensated and sorely in need of a financial boost. 

Republican critics, however, have raised concerns about the increased costs the state could face and characterized the situation as a union powerplay. One complicating factor is that if providers secure a pay hike through government-funded programs, it could also drive up prices for middle-income parents who don’t get subsidies and already find it difficult to afford care. 

The organizing effort for these workers is not a new one. It dates back about 16 years, but reached a milestone in September with a law signed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. That measure paves the way for the workers to collectively bargain with the state.

Under that legislation, the workers, who provide child care out of their own homes or the homes of the children they are caring for, will not become public employees. But it gives them the ability to try to collectively negotiate with the state over the reimbursement rates from government-funded vouchers that lower-income families depend on to pay for child care. 

These subsidy programs cover roughly 360,000 children in California, according to an analysis of the bill written by legislative staff last year. California spends about $2.2 billion from both state and federal programs on child care annually, the analysis also found.

The collective bargaining would not include workers at schools or center-based programs, only providers who work from homes and take care of children who are eligible for subsidies.

One of the unions that is involved in the effort, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is billing the organizing campaign as the largest one to take place in the U.S. in the past decade, with the potential to organize up to 40,000 workers.

“This is a historic movement for sure,” said Johanna Puno Hester, assistant executive director for United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930. “This is a huge organizing effort of many, many years that is finally coming to fruition.”

The workers have already formed a union, Child Care Providers United, which is jointly organized with Service Employees International Union Local 99, SEIU Local 521, and UDW/AFSCME Local 3930. But they still need to go through a formal process to designate the unions as their official representatives in bargaining negotiations with the state.

About 10,100 workers signed union cards that were delivered to the state this month indicating that they want to hold a union election that is a next step in this process, Hester said. She predicted the election would happen in the spring.

AFSCME said last fall that California is one of 12 states to recognize collective bargaining for home-based child care providers.

“Child care providers don’t get rich in this job. We never intended to. We just want to have a decent living,” said Pat Alexander, a California child care provider and union supporter. “We do this because we love this job.”

Alexander, who has provided child care for 49 years, takes care of children ages two to five and is licenced to provide services for up to 14 kids at a time, but she said enrollment is usually closer to 12. She works with her husband and said that their accountant recently told her that their actual earnings were working out to about $4 each per hour.

In California, it’s mostly women, and largely minority women, who are performing child care work, according to Lea J.E. Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley.

“These are incredibly, incredibly important jobs, with people who are supporting the learning and development of young children,” Austin noted. “Yet these jobs are among the lowest paid occupations of any occupation in the state.”

Data on earnings for specific types of child care providers is hard to come by, Austin explained.

But she pointed to 2012 figures showing that 51% of providers in the state who operate a home-based daycare business, and 78% who provide care to one family and are exempt from licensing requirements, lived in households that earned less than the state median income. 

Information that the Economic Policy Institute updated last July shows that the median annual salary for child care workers overall in California was $26,360.

“This workforce as a whole is twice as likely as other California workers to live in poverty, with African Americans in this workforce experiencing even greater economic hardship,” Austin said.

At the same time, many families are bearing heavy costs to pay for child care. 

The average fee for full-time early care and education in California ranges from $11,200 a year for a four-year-old child, to $16,500 a year for an infant, according to a report from last year that EPI and the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment jointly produced.

“Parents are paying a lot of money and they cannot afford to pay more. But we are not realizing the true cost of early care and education services. It costs a lot of money,” Austin said. “The system is currently being subsidized on the backs of teachers.”

Greater public investment could help. But Austin explained that many daycare providers offer care to some families who receive subsidies and others who do not. As it stands, they’re required to charge the same rates for clients in both groups, she said. 

This means that raising state reimbursement rates could result in higher costs for families without subsidies, who may also be struggling to afford care. Complicating matters further, the subsidy programs are oversubscribed, with demand from eligible families outstripping available funding.

“We need policies that allow those providers to make accommodations for families who don't have subsidies,” Austin said.

California Republicans knocked the legislation allowing for child care provider collective bargaining at the time it was passed.

They argued that it threatens to make the price of care more expensive for families, and that it will create new costs for the state that will end up eating up money that now goes to the subsidy programs. They also criticized requirements for agencies to share contact information for child care providers with unions, arguing that this infringes on the workers’ personal privacy.

Shannon Grove, the Republican leader in the state Senate, outlined these and other GOP sticking points in a letter to Newsom last year, urging him to veto the bill.

“The subsidized child care program is a capped program not an entitlement program, which means the more money that goes toward unionizing workers will result in fewer slots for low-income working families to receive subsidized care,” the state lawmaker wrote.

Former state Sen. Jeff Stone, another GOP opponent, speaking during a floor debate last year described the bill as “nothing more than a union grab.”

“It’s very clear that this institution is strongly controlled by labor,” he added, The Sacramento Bee reported at the time. Stone announced he would step down from his seat last fall to take a post with the Trump administration as the U.S. Department of Labor’s western regional director.

The legislative analysis attached to the bill said that California’s budget for 2019 and 2020 includes a $10 million appropriation to fund the workload that the law is expected to create. 

But it also notes that this money will not be enough to cover the total costs of enacting the law and that future expenses would depend in part on the outcome of collective bargaining.

On the benefits front, finding more affordable options for health insurance is a concern for the child care providers. Alexander said that she and her husband were paying $900 a month for health insurance coverage before she became eligible for Medicare.

“We have to pay for it ourselves, we don’t have an employer who’s paying part of it,” she said. “It just costs way too much.”

Hester, with AFSCME, said that one possibility under the new law is that child care providers could come together as a group and have more leverage to try to get better rates from health insurers.

While she was not talking about the specific circumstances in California, Rebecca Kolins Givan, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, in New Jersey, said there are models where the state could pay into a fund that could help support worker benefits.

Givan was also skeptical of the idea that representing the child care workers would prove to be a financial boon for unions.

“Representing low-paid workers in small, very highly distributed workplaces is not something that brings big bucks to unions,” she said. “These are workers that need a lot of representation, their dues are not very much money because they're not making very much money."

“This is not like representing professional football players,” she added.

But there is the potential to grow the ranks of organized labor by significant numbers, she acknowledged. "Low-wage women of color working in the service sector are really in need of representation,” she added, “and are really essential to the future of the labor movement.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter at Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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