AJ (left), 2, and Antonio, 3, recoil from a toy snake held by Dani Hanson-Hooten on Jan. 28 at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

AJ (left), 2, and Antonio, 3, recoil from a toy snake held by Dani Hanson-Hooten on Jan. 28 at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Washington’s child care workers are quitting for better pay

They earn notoriously low wages. A new state grant can help — to an extent.

EDMONDS — Caitlin Gomez has worked with children for the past 10 years. She’s held nearly every job title in child care: support staff, program manager, assistant director.

Four years into her career, a supervisor encouraged Gomez to further her education. Gomez obtained an associate degree and later received a full scholarship to pursue her bachelor’s in early childhood education.

Halfway through the program, however, she left. Getting a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t help her earn the wage she wanted. She grew tired of trying to get ahead in a career where she felt disrespected and undervalued. Gomez is passionate about helping children develop a love of learning but doesn’t believe a bachelor’s degree will pay off in the long run.

“I decided I was wasting my time,” Gomez said.

Washington’s child care providers, considered essential workers, earn wages in the bottom 3% of the state’s occupational groups. According to the Child Care Collaborative Task Force’s most recent report, they’re leaving the industry for jobs with health care, benefits and better pay — like entry-level retail positions.

Washington is one of the top-paying states for child care workers, but on average they only earn $16 per hour. Child care, pre-K and daycare administrators earn almost $27 per hour in Washington, but the pay is still significantly lower than the cost of living.

It’s a problem. Providers can’t afford to pay their employees more, even though the turnover rate is about 43%. They’re already operating on slim margins, made even slimmer if they open their program to low-income families. Many child care providers lose money, because the state only pays them a portion of the actual cost.

Hannah Roberts (left) helps Miriam, 2, with snack time at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Hannah Roberts (left) helps Miriam, 2, with snack time at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“We do it because it helps families out,” said Dawn Siewert, director of the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. “I have a couple families here that wouldn’t have child care if we didn’t take state subsidy.”

Siewert believes children deserve early learning opportunities, regardless of what their parents’ earn. Siewert noted the learning center doesn’t pay rent, which gives her enough financial leeway to accept state subsidies. Roughly 20% of the families at Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center use them.

Siewert became the director two years ago. She holds a bachelor’s degree and has worked with children for more than 20 years. She never received a raise in any of her previous positions.

“That was just kind of standard,” Siewert said.

It’s a point of pride that she can change that for staff at Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. Everyone earns at least $1 per hour more than minimum wage. Staff also receive raises. Siewert recently promoted Gomez to program manager.

“As much as I pride myself that we pay our staff higher here, they’re all still very underpaid,” Siewert said. “If I could pay them $10 to $15 more an hour, I absolutely would. It’s just not a reality for us.”

Antonio (left), 3, and Dani Hanson-Hooten identify toys Jan. 28 at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Antonio (left), 3, and Dani Hanson-Hooten identify toys Jan. 28 at the Edmonds Lutheran Learning Center. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Marci Volmer, chief operating officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Snohomish County, said the nonprofit has about 40 open positions but retained a lot of people through the pandemic. They gave staff a paid week off at Christmas and plan to raise wages with a new grant.

“I honestly feel like our staff who are still here, as well as others in child care, have been superheroes through all of this,” Volmer said. “This was not what they signed up for, especially when school was not in session and we had to start doing virtual school.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Snohomish County recently received a Child Care Stabilization Grant from the state, which uses federal stimulus money to support providers and their employees. The grants come from state lawmakers’ monumental investment in child care last year, the Fair Start for Kids Act.

The grants include money specifically meant for retaining workers. The money can go toward staff bonuses, raising wages and marketing costs to fill open positions.

The Department of Children, Youth, and Families plans to award the grants every month until July. The department already awarded about $260 million statewide last year. More than $24.5 million went to Snohomish County providers.

The Fair Start for Kids Act is intended to make child care more affordable and accessible to families, though it will take a few years for it to fully take effect. A state task force found that supporting child care workers is necessary to accomplish that.

In Washington, half of child care workers are people of color. Roughly 30% speak more than one language. Nationally, women make up almost the entire workforce.

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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