Child Care Is a Labor of Love (Translation: It Doesn’t Pay a Living Wage)
But raising those wages would squeeze tens of thousands of working Hawai‘i families dependent on child care. Here’s the problem and possible solutions.
It’s a Monday morning and about 15 preschool keiki eagerly descend the stairs from their second-floor classroom. It’s time for recess, so their teacher has them line up single file before heading outside.
Kaua‘i Montessori Project Director Marci Whitman and I head upstairs to the now-empty room. The space is divided into two classrooms separated by a row of shelves, plus a corner office. Whitman is also a teacher, but her 18 students are home for the week due to a positive Covid case, so we sit in her empty classroom at a keiki-sized table with four tiny seats.
The preschool opened in 2018 and is licensed for 48 keiki ages 2 through 6. Six teachers, including Whitman, and four teacher’s aides teach the students about emotions, language, motor skills, senses, how to get dressed, and a variety of typical school subjects like geography, science and writing. They’ll even help potty train for an extra monthly fee.
Whitman and the child care providers we spoke with say their jobs are exhausting yet fulfilling. They love helping the keiki learn new things and know that they’re a lifeline for many working families.
But it’s also a labor of love. The median wage for local child care workers is only $13.79 an hour, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data published in May 2021. That’s $28,690 a year for a full-time child care worker. A single adult with no children needed an hourly wage of at least $15.83 in 2018 to afford housing, food, transportation, health care and other necessities, according to the Aloha United Way’s latest financial hardship report. The median wage for local preschool teachers is $17.83 an hour – or $37,080. The bureau views child care workers and preschool teachers as two distinct occupations: Child care workers attend to keiki needs while fostering development, while preschool teachers teach.
“People aren’t doing it for the money, and I’m so tired of saying that because I’ve been saying that since I opened my first school 30 years ago,” Whitman says. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that anymore.”
For years, advocates both inside and outside the child care field have called for higher pay and greater support for Hawai‘i’s child care workers. This past session at the state Legislature, they unsuccessfully pushed for the creation of a pilot program to increase child care wages and for general funds to pay stipends to UH students interested in early education careers. The Legislature did pass bills that require more detailed data collection for the state’s Early Childhood Workforce Registry and that allocate $200 million to build, renovate and expand pre-kindergarten facilities.
The Legislature also designated September 2022 as Child Care Provider Appreciation Month. Advocates hope it encourages the community to recognize the importance of child care. State Sen. Bennette Misalucha, who introduced one of several resolutions on the topic, says Hawai‘i’s economy would not have recovered without those workers.
“We rely on them, they’re pillars in our community,” she says. “And we say that our children and keiki are precious to us, so how can we have the people who take care of keiki be paid that low? They really need and deserve to be honored for the work that they’re doing.”
Low Pay – A Big Problem
The annual median wage for a child care worker in Hawai‘i is $28,690, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s comparable to other low-paying occupations: The annual median wage for home health and personal care aides, for example, is $29,470, and fast food and counter workers make $28,600. Preschool teachers who do not teach special education make a little more: $37,080.
Ke‘ōpū Reelitz, director of early learning and health policy at the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, or HCAN, says it’s “mind blowing” that child care worker wages are so low when the state Department of Human Services requires staff working in child care centers or group homes to have specialized training and education. DHS oversees before- and after-school programs, group homes, infant and toddler centers, preschools and family child care homes. These facilities are either licensed or registered by the department and meet its regulations for children’s health, safety and well-being.
“You’re talking about folks who tend to have at minimum an associate (degree), if not a bachelor’s or even a master’s,” Reelitz says, adding that the pay should be increased to meet those standards, such as through government subsidies. HCAN is a Honolulu-based nonprofit that advocates for children and supported a failed state bill that would have created a pilot program to increase some child care workers’ wages.
UH Mānoa partnered with Rand Corp. to study early childhood educator wages, benefits, working conditions and professional development opportunities. The study’s lead researcher, Lynn Karoly, presented preliminary findings at the state Early Learning Board’s Aug. 25 meeting. The final study is expected in October.
The Hawai‘i Early Childhood Educator Compensation Equity Study found that the median starting hourly wage for assistant teachers working in licensed child care centers is $15.50. The starting wage for teachers with child development associate credentials is $16. For teachers with associate degrees, it’s $17, and it’s the same for teachers with bachelor’s degrees or higher in fields other than early childhood education or child development. Teachers who have bachelor’s degrees or higher in those fields have a median starting hourly wage of $18.25.
The median wage for elementary school teachers who do not teach special education is $63,110, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2021. That’s about $30.34 an hour.
“I told myself that if I open another school, I wouldn’t be willing to pay dirt wages. And that is unfortunately what it takes to keep the cost down low enough for parents to pay the rent and all that.”
– Marci Whitman, Director and teacher, Kauaʻi Montessori Project
Child care workers told the research team that the low wages signal a lack of respect for early educators. Many said they belong to two-earner households to survive but the low wages and physical and emotional burnout are pushing people out of the field. And while low wages and worker retention were already issues pre-Covid, the pandemic made them worse.
“It is very tough to keep good teachers with so many other jobs offering great pay and little stress,” one center director told researchers.
Reelitz says one issue is that an undercurrent of sexism and racism persists in society’s perception of child care. She says that was evident when the recently signed federal Inflation Reduction Act left out many child care and working family provisions that were included in the original Build Back Better package. The final legislation instead focuses on fighting climate change and lowering the costs of prescription drugs.
“It’s very infrequently stated, but it’s palpable,” she says. “This reality that it’s women’s work and, in particular, it’s work that’s frequently done by women of color, so those histories of racism and sexism are palpable through a lot of the conversations. … The fact that we can’t even bring child care workers up to the standard wages that our K-12 (get) just is telling. And I think you see that again in policymaking and in the way we talk about care versus education.”
How Much Do Hawaiʻi Child Care Workers Make?
This information is from the Hawai‘i Early Childhood Educator Compensation Equity Study, which was conducted by Rand Corp. Its data comes from literature, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, interviews with experts, focus groups with the current workforce and its own workforce survey. The numbers are preliminary; the final report is expected in October.
Wages for assistant teachers and teachers who work in child care centers licensed by the state Department of Human Services:
Efforts to Increase Wages
Whitman, director of the Kaua‘i Montessori Project, and I have been talking in her empty classroom for about 20 minutes. She tells me about the Montessori school she opened in Northern California, her work with other Kaua‘i child care programs and how she tried for years to open her own preschool.
“I told myself that if I open another school, I wouldn’t be willing to pay dirt wages,” Whitman says. “And that is unfortunately what it takes to keep the cost down low enough for parents to pay the rent and all that.”
Kaua‘i Montessori Project starts its teacher’s aides at $18 an hour. Pay increases to $22 or $23 an hour for teachers, depending on their experience and degrees. The school is going through an accreditation process and will soon require all teachers to have bachelor’s degrees.
The school was able to raise salaries to those levels thanks to a child care stabilization grant from the state Department of Human Services. The department distributed a little over $58 million in its first round to help providers experiencing financial hardships due to the pandemic. Providers could use the funds for $2,500 retention bonuses, bills, staff training, new equipment and other goods to maintain or resume child care services. About 3,100 employees received retention bonuses statewide. It was a one-time infusion, so Whitman hopes she can sustain the higher salaries through other grants.
“I still feel bad because I still don’t feel like I’m paying them what it really costs to live in Hawai‘i,” she says. “So I wish I could do more, but I’m going as high as we can possibly go right now, with wages and tuition. It’s a balance.”
Child care is often a family’s second- largest monthly bill after rent or a mortgage. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost for full-time infant care in a center was $16,619 in 2020. That would take up 44% of the median income for a single parent and 16% for a married couple. The average cost of care for a 4-year-old in a center was $12,040. Family child care is less expensive – in 2020 it was about $8,300 and $8,500 for 4-year-olds and infants, respectively.
Child care providers who work out of their homes, often alone, face a similar juggling act over fees. Rachelle Ducosin, owner of Country Keiki Daycare in Kamuela on Hawai‘i Island, recently raised her monthly tuition by $25 to keep up with the rising cost of living. She says she’s conflicted because she knows it’s hard for parents to make ends meet, and if she charges too little the business won’t survive. About half of her families use subsidies to help pay their tuition.
Rosalind Leina‘ala Chin, a family child care provider on Maui, increased her monthly rate to $850. Her rationale was that family child care providers are self-employed and don’t have sick pay, employer-provided medical insurance or 401(k)s.
According to the UH/Rand compensation study, 46% of the 48 family child care providers who responded to their survey said they have paid sick leave. Only 2% have fully paid health insurance premiums, and none reported having a paid retirement or pension plan. The median annual wage for a licensed family child care provider in Hawai‘i is $40,000.
“I think I should be charging more, but I’m afraid to raise my tuition because then it wouldn’t be affordable,” Chin says. “I try to keep it at bay with the $850, which they’re (parents) already stressing about.” About 80% of her clients use subsidies to pay tuition. “But again, as providers … we don’t have retirement. We don’t have sick leave. I mean if we don’t watch kids, then we don’t get paid.”
She says more subsidies are needed so providers can increase their incomes without burdening families.
DHS offers two subsidy programs using a sliding scale for families who meet income requirements. The department distributed about $44.5 million in Child Care Connection Hawai‘i subsidies to 3,511 families in state fiscal year 2021. It also distributed $8.9 million in Preschool Open Doors subsidies to 912 fa
milies that year. Private organizations, like Kamehameha Schools, also offer subsidies for families.
Child Care Facilities in Hawaiʻi
Facilities licensed by or registered with the state Department of Human Services include before- and after-school programs, family homes, group homes, infant and toddler centers and preschools. Family homes are registered, while the rest of the facilities are licensed, and all must meet DHS regulations to ensure children’s health, safety and wellbeing.
Not Enough Action
Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, says she’s seen more attention paid to the importance of child care in the news, in the community and in policy in the 10 years she’s been with the organization. But it’s still a lot of talk and not enough action.
This past session, legislators discussed a bill, SB 2701, that would have created a pilot program to increase wages for 5% of the state’s child care workforce to $17 an hour, and appropriated general funds for a stipend program to support individuals pursuing early childhood education programs.
Reelitz says this was the first time in her seven years in the child care sector that she had seen the Legislature discuss child care wages. The bill didn’t pass, but Dayna Luka, child care program administrator at DHS, says the department plans to use some of its supplemental federal Child Care and Development Block Grant funds to help recruit and maintain child care workers. It doesn’t have details yet on how that will work.
The Hawai‘i Early Childhood Educator Stipend Program was created in 2021 to cover tuition and fees for UH students enrolled in early childhood education programs leading to a certificate, degree or license. In exchange, stipend recipients will be required to work at least two years in Hawai‘i’s early education system after graduation. Yuuko Arikawa-Cross, director of the state Executive Office on Early Learning, says the program will be funded with $200,000 from the Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation and the goal is to launch it in spring 2023.
The Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network was one of several organizations that testified in support of the stipend program bill. Reelitz says the hope is that it’ll help increase access to the field: “The idea would be if you’re going to get a bachelor’s and associate’s you should not then come out with debt on top of it.”
More investment in Hawai‘i’s child care workforce is needed especially as the state’s goal is to provide all 3- and 4-year-olds with access to preschool education by 2032, she adds. The state Executive Office on Early Learning says this access also includes other forms of child care like family care homes, group homes, Head Start and license-exempt providers. This past session, the Legislature allocated $200 million to build, renovate or expand prekindergarten facilities.
The governor also signed Act 292 into law. This requires DHS to collect in its Early Childhood Workforce Registry more detailed data on provider demographics, median hourly wages, paid planning time, paid sick and vacation leave, retirement benefits, health insurance, training hours and level of education. Zysman and other advocates hope this will provide the state with better baseline data for future compensation efforts.
Early Childhood Education Degrees Awarded by UH
Several child care providers we spoke with say they worry about the future of their field as low pay and Hawai‘i’s cost of living push people to pursue other lines of work.
UH Mānoa, UH West O‘ahu, Hawai‘i CC, Honolulu CC, Kaua‘i CC and UH Maui offer certificates and degrees specializing in early childhood education, but none of the campuses offer doctoral degrees in the field. Here are totals of degrees awarded:
More Support Needed
The Hawai‘i Early Childhood Educator Compensation Equity Study suggested policies and financing options to increase wages and better support the workforce. Among them were policies to require pay parity across public and private child care providers, establish adequate and equitable wage scales, provide wage stipends or bonuses, and provide access to more employee benefits.
DHS’ Child Care Stabilization Grant Program helped local providers continue operating during the pandemic. Chin used the $27,000 grant money to help offset higher food and electricity costs, plus pay her mortgage, get new appliances, and update her day care area, which her clients appreciated. Ducosin bought more tables so her keiki could socially distance and also used the funds for bills.
“When we have workforce shortages in restaurants, in professional settings, basically any of the sectors, behind that is the child care workers. So when the child care workforce has a shortage, it means everyone else does too.”
– Keʻōpū Reelitz, Director of early learning and health policy,
Hawaiʻi Children’s Action Network
Luka, the administrator of DHS’ child care program, says 76% of eligible child care providers applied to the program. The $58 million helped about 625 child care centers and family child care homes statewide and impacted about 31,000 keiki. The department plans to do a second round with the remaining $14 million in federal funds.
Child Care Earnings, Part II
The District of Columbia earlier this year approved a bill to provide one-time $10,000 to $14,000 payments to thousands of workers who care for infants and toddlers. This effort is funded by nearly $54 million that comes from an income tax increase on wealthy households. DC is known for its universal prekindergarten program and its 2018 Birth-to-Three law, which aims to bring down the cost of child care for families and increase workforce wages. Rand researchers cited DC’s efforts as a potential model for Hawai‘i.
“There tends to be some magical thinking that we can solve this child care problem, that we can fix this problem without needing to commit any governmental funding to it,” Zysman says. “But if you look to any other municipality, county, state, there’s been an investment of taxpayer dollars.”
And more pay isn’t all that’s needed, child care advocates say. Carol Wear is the interim executive director for PATCH, People Attentive to Children, a nonprofit child care resource and referral organization. She says Hawai‘i lost 136 child care providers at the beginning of the pandemic and that fewer people appear interested in becoming family child care providers. It’s challenging to become registered with DHS, so PATCH will guide interested individuals through the registration process and advise whether they need to modify their homes. Last year, the organization helped 16 people become registered providers, and it is currently working with another 157 interested individuals.
The organization also provides existing family providers with free backend services, like billing, attendance and record keeping. And it hosts a social every quarter so that family and center- based providers can meet and share stories. According to the compensation equity study, many family child care providers experience isolation in their work and say they have fewer opportunities for collaboration and support.
Chin, the Maui provider, says she has taken PATCH classes and contacts the Maui office on challenging days. Staff will send her encouraging messages and articles that might help her, and she’s grateful for their support.
Wear says she’s not sure the broader community fully understands what it takes to become a child care worker and stay one. Some think it’s just babysitting and playing with children, but providers spend 8 to 10 hours a day with several young keiki, often without breaks. Most of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5.
Nationally, the number of child care jobs in July 2022 was still down 8.4% from just before the pandemic in February 2020, according to UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. That’s a loss of 88,300 child care jobs.
“When we have workforce shortages in restaurants, in professional settings, basically any of the sectors, behind that is the child care workers,” Reelitz says. “So when the child care workforce has a shortage, it means everyone else does too.”