On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA) released a report detailing the low pay child care workers earn across Wisconsin, increasing turnover and decreasing quality of care for over 200,000 children in Wisconsin.
“Our primary concern is really getting the word out that low pay and high turnover within our child care workforce really threatens any progress we can make in terms of improving quality of care for our kids,” said Ruth Schmidt, the executive director of WECA.
The study, paid for by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and written by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, surveyed the state’s child care facilities. In Wisconsin, there are approximately 22,000 child care workers — 19,500 are child care teachers and assistant teachers at centers, and 2,600 are family providers.
The issue affects a large number of children as well. Seventy-three percent of children under 5 are in some form child care, the WECA report said.
The study echoes a national report released earlier this month by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. The median national wage for child care workers is $9.77 an hour. The report noted that this is comparable to the $9.47 median national wage for workers in the fast food industry. It also found that 46 percent of child care workers nationwide were using some form of public assistance, largely due to low wages.
In Wisconsin, child care teachers at centers earn a median of $10 an hour, while assistant child care teachers earn $8.50 an hour. The wages don’t increase much over time. The median highest wage for teachers was $13 an hour and $9.75 an hour for assistant teachers. Benefits are also a cause for concern. Thirty percent of child care teachers receive retirement benefits and 17 percent receive health insurance, the report found.
Things don’t look better for family providers. Median statistics paint a troubling picture. Working 55 hours a week 51 weeks a year, providers come away with net earnings of $1,500 per month, or $7.50 per hour of work.
“You’ve never gotten paid for very much. One job, where I was the director, I was getting paid 10 bucks an hour,” said Amy Crooks, owner of child care center Academy for Little Learners in Verona.
Child care workers earn these low wages in spite of their education. In Wisconsin, about half of child care teachers have at least an associate’s degree, yet on average are paid almost $18,000 less annually than the rest of the Wisconsin workforce with associate degrees — a drop from $38,625 to $20,800.
“The most essential challenge in the child care industry is the tension between the demand for more education within the child care teaching workforce and the very low pay-off for that education,” the report said.
These low wages contribute to high turnover, the report said.
Nationally, the turnover rate for child care workers is about 20 or 30 percent, according to Marcy Whitebook, the director of Berkeley's Center for the Study of Early Child Care Employment. In Wisconsin’s child care centers, there is a 30 percent turnover rate for teachers and 45 percent rate of turnover for assistant teachers every year.
Crooks said that recruiting employees for her 60-person staff has been “brutal” over the last year-and-a-half. She hires about five to 10 employees annually, and has put out employment ads that garnered little response, even though her organization pays teachers above the state median.
In general, she thinks the industry faces high turnover because child care teachers would rather work at schools with summers off and better benefit packages.
“It’s trying to find people who want to do this as a career versus a job,” Crooks said. “I think that plays a big part into turnover as well.”
High turnover rates negatively affect the quality of care, WECA's Schmidt said.
“Continuous long term relationships with adult caregivers have been proven to affect positive outcomes for children,” Schmidt said. “So having one out of three teachers leave their positions every year will have a detrimental effect on the kids in that classroom.”
The low pay for workers may be surprising considering the high prices for child care itself. Since 2009, child care costs have gone up at twice the rate of inflation, the Berkeley report said.
In Wisconsin, the average annual cost for child care is over $11,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In comparison, the cost for one year of in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is $10,415.
These rising prices are due to factors like rising rents, complying with government regulations, the required student-to-teacher ratio (for infants, one worker to four children) and facility operating costs, according to the WECA report.
The report also noted some promising initiatives, like YoungStar, Wisconsin’s Child Care Quality Rating and Improvement System. Implemented in 2010, the program has a five-star rating system to improve quality of care and make it easier for parents to choose child care. The ratings are based on factors like the learning environment, business practices and education of workers. Ratings range from five stars, or “meets highest levels of quality standards,” to one star, or “does not meet health and safety standards.”
The program provides direct reimbursements and incentives to improve the quality of child care providers. WECA found that child care centers with higher YoungStar ratings correlated with higher wages and lower turnover. Five star providers had turnover rates at about 25 percent and wages about $3 an hour higher. Their employees also had more education.
However, WECA stated that while these improvements are encouraging, this program alone cannot lead to substantial wage increases.
“When you consider that you’re still facing a 25 percent turnover rate and earnings that are dramatically less than what other people in Wisconsin with associate degrees earn … despite the best efforts of YoungStar, we will continue to grapple with high rates of turnover,” said Schmidt.
There are two other programs that WECA believes are helping reduce turnover. The T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Scholarship program awards educational scholarships to early child care teachers, who then commit to continue teaching for an additional year, thereby lowering turnover. REWARD Wisconsin tries to increase retention by giving salary supplements to workers, based on participants’ education and length of time working in the field. Recipients of REWARD have turnover rates of less than one percent.
Academy for Little Learners' Crooks said about half of her employees utilize REWARD, and one or two of her employees take advantage of T.E.A.C.H. She is grateful for both programs.
“I think any sort of new information or new techniques that teachers can bring to the classroom definitely has a positive impact on the kids,” Crooks said.
WECA’s report included several suggestions for improvement. They include expanding the REWARD program and Wisconsin Shares, a child care subsidy program, and a guaranteed health care and a school loan forgiveness program for child care workers.
Schmidt also suggested increasing the rate of the child care subsidies provided through Wisconsin Shares. While Wisconsin’s subsidy rates used to lead the nation, they have remained largely unchanged since 2007, Schmidt said.
Fixing the problem will require a coordinated effort, she said.
“We need to increase the public and private investment in early care and education, and the only way we’re going to do that is by building a broad coalition,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt believes this is an essential issue that could contribute to closing the achievement gap.
“If we want a state where all our children are entering going-to-school age having had the same exposure to high quality care … we need to find a way to finance this system differently so we can raise compensation and stem the tide of turnover,” Schmidt said.