Asst. Teacher Nichelle Brown, 36, of Detroit looks at pictures of food to identify with Jay'ceon James, 2, of Detroit during free time at Squiggles and Giggles child care in the Grandmont 1 neighborhood of Detroit on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)

The median hourly wage for Michigan child care workers — many of whom are women of color — was roughly $11 in 2019, with nearly one in five early educators living below the poverty line. 

That’s one of the findings from a January report that led two groups — the Michigan League for Public Policy, including Kids Count in Michigan, and Think Babies Michigan — to declare that Michigan’s early childhood workforce is in “crisis” because of the low pay, plus staffing shortages. 

Child care providers say that despite providing a foundational service for the youngest children, they aren’t paid or valued enough. The COVID-19 pandemic only exposed existing issues, they say, leading to turnover and staffing issues.

Meanwhile, parents struggle to find adequate and affordable care that is essential for them to stay employed. In Wayne County, it cost parents about $662 a month for child care, or nearly 40% of a minimum wage worker’s income, according to a Michigan League for Public Policy analysis using 2020 data.

And while millions of dollars in recent federal aid injected into Michigan’s child care system is a welcome relief, continued support — including higher wages and increased subsidies — is necessary, providers and advocates say. 

“They are charged with a huge responsibility of taking care of the state’s youngest children and really aren’t valued in a way that is equal to the things that they are doing,” Alicia Guevara Warren, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Lansing-based Early Childhood Investment Corp., said of child care workers.

Building back after COVID-19 closings

Early child care workers are at once parents, cooks, doctors and teachers, said Kai Young, owner and director of Squiggles and Giggles Child Care in Detroit, which she opened 29 years ago. 

She sees the job as her passion and wants to provide quality care for children in Detroit.

But there’s “a lot involved in child care and the money that comes with it is definitely not worth it,” said Young, whose business is home-based. “We do it because we love the children. We love what we do. We do it not because of the money.” 

Lead Teacher Faith Hunt, 20, of River Rouge helps Ryan Wright, 3, of Madison Heights calm down after he began to cry when he gave up his guitar to another child who asked nicely, at Squiggles and Giggles child care in the Grandmont 1 neighborhood of Detroit on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)

She had to close for five months during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and when she finally reopened, she was down to three kids.

She’s now back to her regular roster but “it didn’t happen overnight,” she said. Young estimates she lost about $30,000 during that time, but federal and private grants helped make her whole again. 

Still, there’s the issue of staffing and pay. Although Young has enough people on staff now, she struggled to hire employees in the pandemic. 

“We have to have the income in order to take care of the children, in order to give them quality care, in order to pay the staff, in order to buy the equipment that we need,” she said. 

Kai Young, 50, of Detroit poses for a photo while children pretend to take her picture at Squiggles and Giggles child care in the Grandmont 1 neighborhood of Detroit on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Young has owned the child care since she was 21 years old and said she always knew she wanted to work with children. ÒInitially, when I was in school my dream was to become a teacher,Ó says Young, but after seeing a boyfriendÕs mom with a home daycare and with the support of her aunt Young opened her owned home child care business. (Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)

Young said she had to raise her tuition early last year to make up for rising costs of everyday items such as groceries and disinfecting products. 

Early child care education plays an important role in a child’s first five years of development, she said. 

“They become like family and you end up loving the children and the families like they’re part of your own family.” 

More than 200 open positions

In 2019, the median wage for child care workers in Michigan was $11.13, according to the report from the Michigan League for Public Policy. Many child care educators were eligible for public subsidies, like food assistance, lunch programs and health insurance. 

Nearly 20% of child care workers lived in poverty in Michigan, the California-based Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found. For a family of four in 2019, the poverty threshold was $25,750. 

Child care educators tended to make less than those in the K-8 school system in Michigan. Meanwhile, a survey conducted between June 17 and July 5 of last year found that 87% of child care centers said they were facing staffing shortages that led to serving fewer kids, longer waitlists and reduced hours, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy report. Most center operators said wages were the main “recruitment challenge.” 

Before the holidays, there were about 213 open positions across eight Head Start providers with multiple locations in Detroit, said Jeffrey Miles, senior director for early childhood excellence at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. 

“That’s a huge gap in staff and what that’s actually meaning is they’re only at about 73% of full enrollment, so we are leaving a lot of seats on the table,” Miles said. 

Detroit needs another 23,000 high-quality child care seats as of January, according to Hope Starts Here, a connector for early childhood efforts in Detroit. A 2016 report funded by the Kresge Foundation identified a similar gap and found that the highest need was concentrated in 10 neighborhoods, mostly in northeast and southwest Detroit. 

The city had 445 licensed child care providers as of February, down slightly from around the same time last year, according to an analysis by Data Driven Detroit. 

Across the state, 44% of Michigan residents lived in “child care deserts,” or areas with a lack of child care options, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress reported

Pandemic takes a toll

Child care providers — like other sectors of the workforce — bore the brunt of closures and reopening in the midst of a continuing health crisis during the pandemic. They juggled keeping their businesses open, ensuring the safety of children and trying to hire and retain staff. 

“Largely in this industry, you have women of color who are doing this work,” said Denise Smith, implementation director at Hope Starts Here.

Sheri Williams opened up Detroit-based Agape Love Child Care in 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She faced a temporary closure and fluctuating enrollment. 

Williams was able to hire two employees last fall because of a partnership she has with a local nonprofit program. What a child learns in the first few years informs the rest of their lives, she said. 

“If I want to keep them and if I want good employees, and if I want people who are qualified with the education — or willing to do the work and get the education — I have to pay them more,” said Williams, whose business is home-based. She pays her staff $16 to $17 an hour, which is higher than most places in her experience, she said. 

Felicia Legardy, director of Crystal Swann Child Care in Detroit, also recognizes the need for higher wages. She currently pays her staff $25 an hour. 

Legardy has been in business for 25 years. In 2020, her home-based business’ quality rating dropped because she got COVID-19 and was unable to submit required paperwork in time, she said. That rating is one of the factors that determines subsidy rates. Parents who don’t get subsidies pay $213 a week. 

Although she was able to recoup her losses, that experience was jarring. She’s planning on leaving the industry, she said. 

“I can’t have this happen to me again. … I was so depressed but I still had to keep going for the families that needed me at that time because they had to go to work,” she said.

Legardy loves working in the field, despite the hard work and long hours. Former students come back to her when they get to college. She forms connections with families, some of whom were reeling from homelessness and struggling to pay bills. She pushes employees to open up their own day cares, she said. 

For parents, the search for care is real

One of the reasons experts said women left the workforce in the pandemic was because they tended to shoulder their own child care responsibilities, amid school and day care closures. 

That was the case for Starnetrice Johnson, 33, of Farmington Hills, who had to let go of her hospital job in 2020 because child care places shut down and she didn’t have a place for her son to go at the time. 

“I was stressed, not knowing what I was going to do, not knowing where my money was (going to) come from, not knowing how I was going to pay bills, not knowing how we were going to eat. It was really stressful,” she said. 

Eventually, Johnson went back to work and found child care. She then switched to Legardy’s care earlier this year. Finding a suitable place for her 3-year-old was a “roller coaster.”  

“If I didn’t have child care for him, I couldn’t work,” she said. 

She left a different job late last year because her son was sick and she had to keep him at home, and was unable to take several days off, she said.  

“A lot of parents rely on child care because they don’t have the support system, they don’t have anyone to help them with their children,” said Johnson, who recently started a new job that aligns better with her son’s schedule. 

Finding care was also a challenge for Amina McClendon, a mom of two living in Oak Park. Having access to child care is key for her to continue working as well, she said. 

McClendon, 42, began her job  last July but didn’t find child care for her younger son until August. Until then, she was able to work remotely. 

Safety concerns and affordability were her top priorities. McClendon visited centers that she felt were understaffed and would cost anywhere from $300 to $400 a week, and that didn’t include diapers.

“It’s hard, I mean, the anxiety and the stress of finding appropriate child care that’s safe for your child with the pandemic and people being so short-staffed,” she said.  

Finally, she found Legardy’s child care which is within walking distance to her job. 

McClendon and her husband don’t qualify for subsidies because they are just above the income threshold and so they pay out of pocket. But quality child care is so important to her that it’s worth it, she said.  

 “It’s a stretch, but I’m willing to sacrifice other things,” McClendon said. 

Money is coming

The state has recently made investments into the child care industry that advocates say have been significant and historic. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year unveiled a $1.4 billion plan to expand affordable child care with federal dollars. Licensed child care workers can get $1,000 bonuses and $700 million of the budget went toward stabilization grants for providers. Meanwhile, the state raised the income eligibility for child care subsidies to 185%, or a family of four currently making $49,025, from 150% of the federal poverty level — or $39,750 — through 2023, then 160% for the following years

In a January survey of nearly 5,000 childhood educators across the country, 92% of those who received stabilization grants from federal COVID-19 relief aid were able to keep their programs open, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“In order for us to really see those long-term changes, we’re going to need to find a way in the future to make all of these expansions permanent,” said Guevara Warren, of the Early Childhood Investment Corp.

Providers say pathways for education and professional training, like dual enrollment for high school students interested in the field, is crucial for the future of the workforce, along with increased compensation. 

“The child care industry has for a long time been overlooked and underpaid,” said Williams, who has been in the field for more than 16 years.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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