Child care providers celebrate new law allowing them to unionize

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A small child's hands. Credit: Pixabay.

When Gavin Newsom signed AB387 into law today, he ended 16 years of unsuccessful attempts by daycare providers statewide to unionize. He also signed on to be "the boss" who  child care providers will directly bargain with when they hammer out their first ever labor contract. 

The new law, which will go into effect on Jan 1, 2020, allows family child care providers the right to collectively bargain for a labor contract.

Today’s bill signing represents a major victory for the mostly women of color who care for many of the state’s littlest residents. After five previous gubernatorial vetoes, many a lawmaker calling daycare owners “babysitters,” and major cuts to child care following the 2008 recession, veteran child care providers are ecstatic, including Bellflower’s Tonia McMillan.

“Signing our bill strengthens my belief that when you know you’re right, you continue to fight,” McMillan said. “We childcare providers fought and we won.”

For 16 years, McMillan and other home-based child care providers pursued unionizing as a strategy to improve pay and gain benefits such as healthcare, a retirement plan, and access to professional development trainings. What’s unusual is that these workers are  entrepreneurs -- they work for themselves. They're not a group that has traditionally sought a union to help improve labor conditions. 

Yet for many of California’s daycare providers, payment for services comes directly from the state. That's because they serve families who qualify for subsidized care based on their low income. That payment is below market rate, so it's hard for providers to make ends meet. 

“The way they are paid is very problematic,” said Johanna Hester, assistant executive director of  AFSCME/United Domestic Workers Local 3930, one of the union partners in the effort. “It starts with the low rates, [but] it is also the way they are paid -- that whole structure is problematic.” The reimbursement system is complicated, and it can sometimes take months for a provider to receive payment. And so, it's hard to run a business, let alone make enough money to survive, she said. 

Many child care providers are teetering at the minimum wage edge, according to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute and UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

While increasing pay will be a major push in negotiations with the governor, the providers will also be able to negotiate with health care companies for a comprehensive and low-cost plan. There are more than 27,000 licensed family child care providers in the state. When license-exempt carers are added (family members, friends or neighbors who care for children), that number jumps to 40,000, according to the union. It’s a lot of people, and Hester believes insurance companies will be jostling for their business. 

Hester also casts today’s bill signing as a huge victory for a constituency with little political power. “It’s absolutely a women’s industry. And often times women’s work is ignored, forgotten or set aside,” Hester said. 

Unionizing might also help these care providers become better at their jobs. In Illinois, one of the 11 other states that have collective bargaining agreements for home child care providers, part of the negotiations included a pot of money so providers could access trainings. These trainings included how to improve their businesses, understanding advances in early brain science, and how to better work with children under the age of five.  

These benefits make it a “win-win,” according to local child care agency leader Micahel Olenick. He acknowledges the new law will mean more work for agencies like his, yet Olenick believes improving conditions for home-based providers will incentivize more to open, getting more children into quality care. It would "take some of the family, friends and neighbors [who care for children], and get them licensed and improve the quality,” Olenick said. 

Currently statewide, there are many children aged 0-5 who cannot access a spot at a licensed child care center (because there simply are not enough). Opening child care centers is a much bigger and more expensive undertaking than encouraging entrepreneurs to do so in their own homes. 

In LA County alone, some 1,600 family child care centers have closed over the last five years, leading to a loss of 15,000 spots. Countywide, over half a million children under the age of 5 do not have access to a licensed child care spot. Supporters of the new law contend that improving pay and conditions for family child care providers will encourage less to close, and perhaps incentivize some to open. 

When the law takes effect, family child care providers must select a representative to negotiate on their behalf. The Childcare Providers Union (CCPU) is the collective that providers will be asked to vote for. It is a partnership between SEIU Locals 99 and 521, and AFSME’s United Domestic Workers Local 3930. SEIU and AFSME are two of the largest public sector unions in the country.

After the vote, the Public Employee Relations Board will have to sign off. Then a date will be set to start negotiating with the governor. 

Back at her home in Bellflower, where she has cared for children for almost 25 years, Tonia McMillan said her work isn’t done. A new round of organizing begins -- intensive door knocking and canvassing to get the word out to the thousands of daycare providers statewide about the upcoming vote and the possibilities that unionizing can afford them.

More: In high demand, but with little pay, day care workers hope to unionize

Deepa Fernandes is an Early Childhood reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.