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Early Child Care Advocates Organize for Greater Support, Workers Compensation

The return to normalcy after the pandemic will rely, in part, on the maintenance of a vibrant workforce, especially those taking on jobs in the hospitality and service fields during the evening hours. Many of these employees are parents who will more than likely seek adequate child care.

In response to this pressing need, Bright Beginnings, an early child care and family learning facility for children and families experiencing housing instability, has attempted to launch programs for infants and toddlers taking place throughout the evening and well into the night.

At this point, plans for two classrooms are in the works.

However, without adequate funding, full staffing of the Southeast facility at that time wouldn’t be possible. “Having a lot of options is imperative for people being able to sustain their families and come back into the workforce,’ said Dr. Marla Dean, Bright Beginnings’ executive director.

Dean recently counted among a group of early child care education providers who spoke to D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) during a virtual town hall about the state of the industry in Ward 8.

This event of more than an hour on June 16 took place during a budget season where many providers, including Dean, are appealing for the full funding of the Birth to Three for All DC Act, through which early child care centers can adequately staff their facilities.

While other early child care facilities struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, Dean appealed to her donor base and secured more than $3.5 million in funds to continue providing child care and wraparound services free of charge to families. Those funds have also allowed Bright Beginnings to raise staff members’ annual salaries by $20,000.

Realizing Bright Beginnings’ goal of opening classrooms in the evening hours would require additional funds for staff, security, and the amenities similar to what children receive during the daytime.

“Ideally, we want 13 classrooms for evening care if we could, but we won’t jump out there and staff those classrooms because we can’t afford it and it takes time for us to see if it economically adds up,” Dean told The Informer.

“The regulatory environment is complicated so that kind of increases the cost of child care. You need a staff person to make sure you’re keeping up, but there are no dollars for that.”

FOCUS ON THE LEGISLATION

Data shows the average salary of an early child care worker in the District standing at less than $36,000 annually, or $17.64 per hour.

During the pandemic, many of the more than 400 early child care facilities in the District faced financial ruin,  due in part to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)’s policy that awarded subsidies based on attendance rather than enrollment.

Advocates said this arrangement proved detrimental to fully staffed child care facilities running a hybrid model.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FY 2022 budget proposal, revealed in late May, includes a $6 million pilot program that, for the upcoming fiscal year and next, would provide up to $1,500 in bonuses to early child care educators who stay in the profession or gain a credential over the course of a year. The budget also includes a temporary $10 million investment in the child care subsidy program, but it remains unclear about whether that would directly go to compensation.

Such allocations however don’t suffice for members of the DC Under 3 Coalition, a group that has espoused support for fully funding the Birth to Three All DC Act, which the D.C. Council approved in 2018.

A provision of the legislation that has caught the coalition’s attention as of late involves compensation of early childhood educators, and a study that OSSE would conduct to create a system where educators receive adequate compensation according to their level of education, credentials, and experience.

This portion of the legislation would cost $60 million.

“As they’re thinking about the budget, [we would like all council members] to think about their constituents who are child care educators or families dependent on child care,” said Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, director of early childhood policy at DC Action and leader of the DC Under 3 Coalition.

“We know that child care is an economic force in the District. It helps children build the foundation they need from a young age,” Anbar-Shaheen continued. “Council member White demonstrated that he knows the value of child care in his ward. We hope that translates into an investment in the budget.”

SMALL BUSINESSES TRY TO STAY AFLOAT 

Some Southeast-based legacy business owners, like Bridget Hall of Big Mama’s Children’s Center, said they stand to benefit from the D.C. Council’s allocation of funds that would help early child care centers better compensate their workers.

Hall, whose mother opened Big Mama’s Children Center nearly 40 years ago, said that, without a competitive benefits package, she has struggled to attract and retain top-notch talent. In the age of COVID-19, following regulations and making payroll has become quite the undertaking, especially after spending money on cleaning supplies and staff, and creating care packages for affected families.

Despite her best efforts, and a grant from OSSE, Hall couldn’t stop two staff members from seeking employment somewhere else. She told The Informer that this setback threatens her ability to serve families that may turn to Big Mama’s Children’s Center for safe, reliable child care coming out of the pandemic.

“The funding would benefit us as far as supporting our staff and giving them what they deserve,” Hall said.

“Our staff members are our sheroes. They didn’t have to come back. They’ve been working in the trenches since Day 1. They clean up two times a day so they’re our first line of defense.”

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