Current Issues in Childcare Compensation

By Liz Garone

Nobody goes into the childcare field to make a lot of money, especially not in today's robust economy where flipping burgers pays better. We're not kidding. In the San Francisco Bay Area, new full-time counter help at In-N-Out Burger starts at $9.00 an hour plus full benefits. Compare that to starting childcare teachers in Alameda County who earned, on average, $8.28 an hour in 1998.

So, it comes as no surprise that the childcare industry is in a crisis when it comes to hiring and retaining qualified childcare teachers and assistants. Why should childcare workers stay in such a low-pay, high-stress field when, with a few years' schooling, they can teach kindergarten and boost their wages to an average of $19.85 an hour? Or if they don't want to go back to school, they can make more behind the burger counter?

Low Wages

While wages do vary within the childcare industry, very few people are making a lot of money, and some are below the poverty level. Here is a wage sampling:

In California, the average childcare worker with a college degree earns about $20,000 a year, according to the California Childcare Resource and Referral Network. Without the degree, the amount drops to about $16,000.

In Alameda County, starting teachers were paid an average of $8.28 an hour while assistants made $7.04, according to the 1998 Survey of Childcare Staff Salaries, Working Conditions and Benefits.

In San Francisco County, starting teachers made $9.05 compared to $6.74 for assistants in 1997, according to Wu Yee Children's Services.

Nationally, childcare teachers are paid between $5.52 to $12.27 an hour, depending on location and whether they work at a for-profit chain, an independent for-profit, or an independent nonprofit. Assistants make anywhere from $5.46 to $7.79. These figures come from Worthy Work, Unlivable Wages, The National Childcare Staffing Study, 1988-1997.

If you compare these wages to those outside of the field, you quickly see why so many workers are fleeing the industry for more financially rewarding pursuits. The following are median hourly wages for a number of other professions, according to Bureau of Labor statistics: kindergarten teacher, $19.85; nurse, $12.94; bus driver, $11.55; secretary, $11.52, and parking lot attendant, $7.06.

Why So Low?

There are a number of reasons why childcare wages have remained so low while other industries have seen substantial increases, according to Marci Andrews Young, acting executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group for improvements in childcare. Chief among them is the fact that childcare workers do not have a unified voice, according to Young.

"There isn't any universal system in place for taking care of children or how to reward the folks doing it," said Young. Childcare workers tend to be spread out; they work in a number of different types of settings, and many of those are informal and not easy to organize. Currently, with the exception of a few isolated movements, childcare workers have no unions or national labor associations representing them.

Another issue in the field is that of gender division. "The attitude, both in and out of the field, has always been 'Any woman can do this,'" said Young. "Therefore, the value put on them (the workers) is much lower than it should be." The attitude is reflected in extremely low wages, few benefits, and little respect, she said.

The booming economy doesn't help matters, either, said Young. "We're hearing the same story over and over again," she said. "People are leaving for jobs down the street that pay better and offer full benefits."

A study conducted in 1997 by the Center for the Child Care Workforce found a 30 percent turnover rate in the childcare field. That number is estimated to be closer to 40 percent today.

"That's an enormously high turnover rate for any profession," said Jim Stockinger, co-chair of the California Association for the Education of Young Children Quality Compensation Affordability Committee.

It is not just a difficulty for center directors and those trying to fill the spots, according to Young. It's a much bigger problem for the children themselves. "What we adults experience as turnover, children experience as loss," explained Young. "It's detrimental to their human development."

Stockinger agrees. "We're talking about real consequences for children," he said, "not just difficulties for teachers who are trying to make ends meet."

The turnover rate is expected to go even higher, according to Stockinger. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that so many people are leaving the field, he said, especially when they have enough education -- high school and a year or two of college -- to do something else. "They're getting ridiculously low wages," he said. "It's real disgrace the way we reward the early childhood education community."

Welfare reform laws and smaller class sizes have increased the need for childcare services, said Young. But while those numbers are growing, so are the numbers of centers having to limit new enrollment and, in some cases, close their doors.

At a recent conference Young attended in Illinois, she heard from 75 childcare center directors about staffing problems that have reached "crisis" proportions. One director told her that she had to close three classrooms despite increasing demand for childcare spots. The national YMCA childcare program has stopped growing its programs because of the teacher shortage.

In California, the problem is especially acute, according to a report recently released by the California Childcare Resource and Referral Network. According to the report, California does not have a single county with enough licensed childcare facilities to meet demand. The problem is only expected to get worse in today's bustling economy. Infant and toddler childcare is in especially short supply, according to the report.

Melissa Bowen is an anomaly. She has been a childcare teacher for the past nine years and hasn't left yet. But Bowen has a partner in the computer field who "subsidizes" her income. Being subsidized by a partner is quite common among childcare workers who stay in the field, according to Bowen.

"Without that, I don't know what I would have done," she said. Bowen doubts that she would have been able to support herself on her teacher income alone. More than a few times, she saw co-workers without a similar safety net have their phone or their electricity turned off. "It was awful," she said. "They just couldn't pay their bills."

What Can Be Done About the Problem?

In the past decade, a lot has been done to entice people into the childcare field through scholarships and other means. Recent efforts have begun to focus more on retaining those workers already on board and trained, according to Young.

AB 212,the California Compensation and Recognition Enhances Stability, or CARES, bill, is one such effort, said Young. Although vetoed by the governor, some cities and counties, San Francisco and Alameda among them, have developed CARES plans using a portion of the tobacco tax to supplement salaries for childcare workers who achieve a certain level of training. The CARES stipends range from $500 to $6,000 a year. Programs modeled on CARES are being adopted around the country.

"We really have to deal with the retention issue," said Young, "and reward those people who make significant commitments and investments in the field."

Liz Garone is a freelance writer who also happens to have years of experience as a camp counselor and director. She is based in San Francisco, California, and holds an M.S. degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in American Studies from University of California at Davis. Liz's work has appeared in numerous on and offline publications, including the Washington Post, the Oakland Tribune, New Times and You can find out more about her at

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