For Kyra Swenson, an infant and childhood educator, returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic was not an option. She added that she felt unsafe in the classroom due to insufficient public health guidance.
Swenson contributed to an index by the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, or CSCCE, which shows systemic low wages, food insecurity and racial disparities in early childhood educators. According to co-author and CSCCE research and policy associate Krista Olson, the index highlights challenges that early child care and education workers face, such as teacher retention.
“Even before the pandemic, early educators were among the lowest-paid workers in the U.S.,” Olson said. “In our report, we ranked every occupation by average pay — only 2% of all occupations in the U.S. are paid less than the people educating and taking care of our kids.”
The report found that the average U.S. child care worker earns $11.65 per hour, which often does not cover basic needs, according to Olson. More than half of child care workers rely on public assistance, which is double the rate of elementary and middle school teachers.
Additionally, COVID-19 has worsened issues within the field. According to Swenson, teacher retention was a problem before COVID-19, but the field is now “crumbling.”
“A lot of teachers did question, ‘I’m getting paid just above minimum wage and I’m putting myself, my health and my family at risk — is this really what I want to be doing?’ ” Swenson said. “It’s going to be hard to attract people back into the field when things open up again.”
Olson added that while the pandemic increased costs in child care, the federal government did not provide adequate support for early childhood educators, especially in terms of getting personal protective equipment and financial relief.
The report also found disparities in some of the populations hardest hit by the pandemic, specifically Black and Latinx women. After controlling for education levels, Black and Latinx educators earn approximately 78 cents less per hour than their white peers, Olson noted.
“A predominantly white leadership is making decisions for a field that is incredibly diverse,” Olson said. “There is an urgent need to reimagine the system with an anti-racist social justice perspective.”
Increased public funding is essential for solving issues in early child care and education, according to Olson. She added that instead of being treated like a private service, child care should be publicly funded for every family that wants it, similar to K-12 education.
Swenson said it is also important that the funding is spent with workers in mind. According to Swenson, the report is one of the few resources that looks deeply at the workforce.
“I hope this empowers educators to see that this isn’t just their struggle. All of us are struggling field-wide,” Swenson said. “We can take this concrete information and go to policymakers and really show the scope of the problem.”