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COMMENTARY

Home-based childcare providers in R.I. need a fair contract

“I have watched firsthand as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the childcare workforce,” one childcare provider says. “The governor has a chance to do all that this year, and he can start by settling a fair contract with home childcare providers like me.”

I am a childcare provider who operates a home-based family childcare in Johnston. I was pleased to see an op-ed by Governor Dan McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos highlighting the importance of investing in our state’s childcare system.

I have watched firsthand as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the childcare workforce. The governor and lieutenant governor are right: the childcare system IS in crisis. Providers are leaving the profession, and those of us who remain are struggling. As McKee and Matos write, we need better wages. We need to extend free and subsidized childcare to more parents. And we need to strengthen educational offerings for providers. The governor has a chance to do all that this year, and he can start by settling a fair contract with home childcare providers like me.

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I, and providers like me, work every day to provide the best start in life for kids in our care. Yet we do this work without adequate pay/funding, without paid assistants, without adequate paid time off, without retirement benefits, and in some cases, without healthcare. McKee talks about investing in childcare. But the contract he is proposing to home childcare providers leave providers like me behind.

While the governor is proposing increasing the funding, it doesn’t go far enough to address the systemic changes we need. Childcare providers are paid through CCAP, the Childcare Assistance Program. Currently, CCAP pays less than $200 per child per week to providers. Through the pandemic, I cared for only two children for more than six months. Despite the enhanced pandemic rates (which have now expired), I still received less than $450 per week that I had to stretch to pay my mortgage and utilities and buy the toys, equipment, and cleaning supplies I needed to stay open. Even when I have more children enrolled, after managing my expenses, I am left with far too little to live on. If I had an assistant, I’d make even less — no wonder so few childcare providers can afford to employ one.

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The governor has proposed spending money to attract new childcare providers and investing in more educational opportunities. But nearly every day, providers like myself decide we can no longer afford to keep our doors open. Our parents depend on us to offer high-quality, affordable childcare options located right in their own neighborhoods. Every time a provider leaves the workforce, badly needed home childcare spots disappear. How does the governor propose to bring new people to this work if he can’t keep the people who are already doing it? For many of us, this contract is our last chance to stay in the job. If CCAP rates and other benefits do not dramatically improve, we will leave, new recruits won’t stay, and the whole childcare system will be weaker as a result.

I know the children I care for and their parents depend on me to provide reliable, quality services. Every day I work to try and do more, and give more with too little resources. It’s time Rhode Island’s leaders provide the funding needed to fix these systemic problems in our home-based child care. Providers like me deserve health insurance benefits, vacation, and the right to retire. We deserve to be paid fairly for our work. And we deserve the chance to advance in our chosen careers without worrying about where our next rent, mortgage, or utility payment is coming from.

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McKee and Matos need to do more than just talk about the importance of childcare. They need to invest in me and the rest of the home childcare providers throughout the state. We have made it clear what we need to stabilize and grow our workforce. Now it is the administration’s turn to live up to its commitments.

Lourdes Urena is a childcare provider in Johnston, R.I., and a bargaining committee member of New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU 1199NE.