A Childcare Worker Speaks Out

Last week, tens of thousands of home day-care workers in New York City came a step closer to union representation when the state Senate overrode a veto by Governor George Pataki. The legislation would allow the United Federation of Teachers to organize providers who contract with the state to care for children of low-income families. The Assembly is expected to vote on the override when the legislature reconvenes later this year. Childcare is among the lowest paid professions in the nation, averaging just $8.68 an hour. Here, Melvina Vandross, a childcare provider in the Bronx, New York, writes about her profession.

Providers of home-based care are isolated, work long hours, and lack benefits. But unions have begun to achieve some success. The Service Employees International Union recently won a contract for day-care workers in Illinois after a long campaign and a gubernatorial executive order allowing representation. Similar orders exist in Iowa, Washington state, and Oregon, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is organizing in Pennsylvania and California.

Taking care of children is in my blood. I love having children around me, and my mother was like that too.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, where I was raised, all the kids in the neighborhood came to our house day and night. I am 60 years old and have been caring for children from poor families in my home for 18 years.

My three biological children are grown, and I have adopted two kids--the youngest is in middle school. I have always worked closely with my children's teachers, so as a home day-care provider, I work very closely with the families of the children I care for.

It's rewarding to me to teach children and see them grow. Right now I take care of two children who are starting kindergarten in September. When they first came to me, they spoke only Spanish. Now they speak English and know their colors and letters. It's important that I provide them with a foundation that their teachers can build on.

The children keep me going to do this difficult work, but the childcare system needs a whole makeover from the pay to the way providers are treated. My work is undervalued and unsupported. The subsidy rate in New York is too low to cover the real cost of care. I get paid a flat rate of $18.60 cents a day to care for each child even though most of the time that child is with me for 10 or 11 hours a day. With what I earn--less than $19,000 per year--I can't support my family. My son recently needed tutoring, but I could not afford it. I am healthy now but if I get sick, I have no health insurance.

After 18 years, I will have no pension when I retire. If the state or city treats us unfairly, where do we go? There is no one to turn to if a payment is late or if there is a problem with one of the many government agencies we must deal with. Nobody wants to hear your voice. You just get shifted from agency to agency.

This is not the way it should be in this country. We should earn a living wage. We should be paid on time. We should be reimbursed for the money we spend on food and instructional supplies for the children. We should have health and retirement benefits. We should have sick days and a paid vacation. With a union, we would have a voice. We would have representation.

I want the public to know that we are the ones who set the foundations for education. We need professional development. Love and nurturing are important, but learning techniques to stimulate and educate children are important, too. We're not asking for anything that the parents of the children we care for wouldn't want us to have.

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