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Daycare Workers

by Sasha Nyary, Jul 07, 2004
 

Daycare workers have one of the most undervalued jobs in our society. They are in reality early childhood teachers who are required to have the same qualifications as teachers in public school and Head Start staff.

But even though research has long shown that putting children in quality childcare before they are school-aged leads to greater academic success, these teachers earn up to $10,000 less than newly-hired Head Start teachers with the same training. Indeed, the average pay for a daycare worker, which also includes support staff, such as cooks, bookkeepers and custodians, is $27,000 a year. So in June, the daycare workers and daycare directors joined forces and struck for three days in an effort to get the city to the negotiating table, which it had avoided for a year.

Daycare workers have been without a contract since January 2001, and the daycare directors have been without one since March 2001. Neither group has had a raise since April 2000 and the cost of living has gone up almost 13 percent since. The two unions watched as the city negotiated raises with all municipal employees during the last contract negotiations - raises of four percent, four percent, and one percent over 27 months. Now the mayor is offering the daycare workers and directors a $1,000 bonus and a three percent and two percent raise over two years, while saying that no funding will be available for raises until April 2006 unless they are paid for with give-backs. These are the only raises offered for six years.

The unions representing the 7,000 daycare employees, DC 1707, and the 460 daycare directors, CSA, (Council of School Supervisors and Administrators), are not the most powerful or sophisticated in the city. Their members are mostly women of color. But more than these political drawbacks, the reason the unions have not been able to get the mayor's attention is because technically they are not city employees. "It is not fair to our hardworking city employees and to the taxpayers to provide them with a better raise than our own workers," says mayoral spokesman Jordan Barowitz.

The workers are employed by non-profit organizations that run the 346 daycare centers across the city and they negotiate their contracts with the Day Care Council of New York, which represents the boards of the non-profits. But although the workers are not city employees, the sole funder of their programs is the city, which awarded $690 million last year in contract childcare programs and vouchers. That makes the city the sole determiner of how much is available for the daycare contracts. (Parents who can afford to, pay on a sliding-fee scale.) The city's Administration for Child Services and Human Resources Administration places 96,000 children from families on public assistance and with low and moderate incomes in daycare programs and voucher-funded childcare providers. This is only a third of eligible preschool children however, and 20 percent of school-aged children.

The mayor was able to find the money for all the other city-funded workers in 2002, says Sandy Socolar, DC 1707's policy analyst. "He says he doesn't have the money to go back before his administration," Socolar says. "But he did go back in the case of the teachers, Queens bus drivers -- who are not municipal employees -- staff police sergeants, all of whom went back before the 2001 contract period."

"We are two contracts behind!" says Richard Oppenheimer, director of family day care at the Nuestros Ninos Child Development School in Williamsburg and a vice president of the daycare directors union. "The city's treatment of this group is shocking. To single us out, to be the only union that are two contracts behind is unconscionable. I've never struck, I've never had to. But this period of time without a contract is the longest ever."

The unions say the city is siphoning off funds allocated to childcare in order to pay for other things, a charge Barowitz denies. The city puts in its own money, along with funds it receives from the Child Care Block Grant, a mix of state and federal aid awarded originally as part of the 1996 federal welfare reform (In PDF Format). In the beginning the block grant funds paid for a third of the city's childcare need and the city paid two-thirds, but over the years the city has been reducing the amount it puts in. Now the percentage of the block grant that pays for the city's childcare programs has risen to nearly 75 percent and the city only pays a quarter. "State regulations specify that you cannot use these funds for any other purpose," Socolar says. "The money we got from the Feds was intended not only to let us increase the supply but to increase the pay as the cost of living goes up for the childcare work force."

Not surprisingly, daycare centers have been suffering a prolonged staffing crisis. "At this point our daycare centers are finding it almost impossible to fill those positions because they are being drained off into Head Start and the schools," Socolar says. "Job openings are listed for five or six months with no takers. People who stay in daycare do it by choice, but how long can they stand it if their pay is frozen at levels four years old? If you can't attract qualified people, there's higher turnover and the children pay for it with teachers who have inadequate preparation."

City-funded daycare came out of World War II, when large numbers of women went into the paid workforce to replace the men who had gone to fight. Ever since the workers unionized in the 1970s they have had conflict with the city, but up to now they've always reached an agreement. "I don't really know why the mayor has been so heavy-handed, so discriminatory," Socolar says. "We haven't had this with any other mayor before, even in the depth of the fiscal crisis. They each came up with a comparable package for what the municipal employees were getting. Not this one."

At least now the city and the unions are talking, which gives Oppenheimer hope. "It's been a year since we've been at the table," he says. "It was at least a real conversation taking place. We were not happy with the initial offer, but it was a real offer. It was a different conversation." The offer was not acceptable to the unions because in essence it means a seven percent cut in their real wages because of the rising cost of living.

Negotiations are continuing. "We can't talk about this contract until the contract for the first 27 months gets settled," Socolar says. "We are asking for the same raise that everybody else got for that period - and teachers got a lot more. Then everything else will fall into place fairly easily."

Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine and the mother of a public school student, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization. 

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