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Pandemic spotlights problems with the child care industry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn to a subject you might be dealing with - caring for preschool children. Millions of parents and caregivers have been facing tough decisions over the past two years. And now in the middle of this latest COVID wave, it's gotten even tougher because in many parts of the country, day care centers are shutting down either because kids are sick or teachers and staff are. And so parents are left stranded, often with little warning.

So, yes, parents are struggling, but the people who care for and educate young children are struggling, too. Child care is some of the lowest paid work in the country, and employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the child care industry has lost more than 100,000 workers since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic turned a spotlight on a problem that's existed and many feel is getting worse. So we wanted to talk with somebody who has been dealing with this, so we called Brenda Hawkins, who's operated a small, home-based day care in Upper Marlboro, Md., for the last 24 years. And she's with us now. Brenda Hawkins, Miss Brenda, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BRENDA HAWKINS: Yes, ma'am. Thank you for contacting me.

MARTIN: Now, you - gosh, you've pretty much cared for a generation now if you've been in the business this long. How did you get into this field to begin with?

HAWKINS: Well, I was working my way through college. You know, I thought that I was going to be a nurse. I would go to the hospital, do my clinicals at night. And I'm going to tell you, I would be working with my children during the day, and it was just - there was no comparison. I simply love what I do, working with children, while working in the health care profession, it just wasn't for me.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think is a shock to a lot of people when they start having kids is how expensive child care is. On the other hand, child care is some of the lowest paid work, with a high responsibility. And I'm just wondering, what do you think about that disconnect between the fact that it's so expensive on the one hand but child care workers make so little on the other?

HAWKINS: Exactly. So when it comes to the parents and the amount that they pay for child care, I don't think that they really understand until you break it down into an hourly wage. So we work an average of 40 to 60 hours per week. A lot of us work more along the lines of that 60 hours per week. And when you're talking about spending $200 for child care, that actually breaks down to an hourly rate of $3.33. When you break it down that way to parents, they tend to understand a little bit better. When you actually look at the job that we do and the amount of hours we spend with the children, it's really not expensive at all. And, you know, some things that child care providers struggle with is the amount of money that we're paid and also the lack of benefits.

MARTIN: Like what? You don't have - how do you take care of yourself, for example?

HAWKINS: I am fortunate that I have a husband that works outside of the home that has an employer that offers health insurance. However, there are providers who don't, and so they find themselves paying costly premiums for health insurance. And so that's one problem that we have in child care. Another is that, you know, there's - when it comes to retirement, there's a lot of providers that find themselves working well into their 60s and 70s because they simply can't afford to retire.

MARTIN: Why do you think so many child care workers are quitting? I cited that number earlier when we started our conversation about how many child care workers have quit since the start of the pandemic. Why do you think that is?

HAWKINS: Well, I believe that child care workers have started to leave the field for the simple reason that, since the pandemic, there's a lot more work involved, and they're still making the same pay. And there's a lot - there's long hours because now you're doing your job. You're doing your regular job, but on top of it, the added measures to keep everyone safe. We're constantly having to sanitize and disinfect equipment. And also, I believe, it's fear because we're dealing with a group of children. The groups that we deal with, there's no vaccine for.

MARTIN: What about you? Forgive me for putting you on the spot here. Have you ever thought about quitting, or have you thought about quitting over the last two years?

HAWKINS: No, I haven't. Have I've been concerned about COVID and COVID in my child care? Yes. And we've actually had to close down because we had a confirmed case. But I haven't thought about quitting because I feel like this is what I was called to do.

MARTIN: Tell me about the outbreak. When was that, and what was that like?

HAWKINS: So it was January 16 of last year. I received a call from a parent who said that their child was diagnosed with COVID. It was the hardest phone call that I ever had to make to these parents to let them know that their child was - that they had come in contact with a child that had COVID. So it was a scary feeling because you just don't know what to expect. You don't know whether you're going to get it, you know, whether your family is going to come down with it. You don't know what's going to happen to the other children. You know, you're just really concerned.

We made it through. But, you know, even with that, you know, there are people who, once that happens, they don't want to come back to your day care, even though it's out of your control. You've done - you know you've done everything that you possibly can do. But, you know, they just don't want to come back because they're fearful.

MARTIN: How long did you have to shut down?

HAWKINS: Two weeks.

MARTIN: Wow. That's a lot.

HAWKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: And was everybody OK?

HAWKINS: Everyone was OK. Yes.

MARTIN: So I want to go back to the - kind of the core question here, that disconnect that we've talked about. On the one hand, it's expensive for parents. On the other hand, you're not making a lot. But what would make a difference?

HAWKINS: I believe that the subsidy rate should be raised because that way, the parents can get the care that they need and don't have to pay the costly expense of day care. Some parents can afford it without a problem. You have a two-family household and both parents are making good money, they can afford it. But there is that single parent who is barely making it, but they don't make enough to qualify for a child subsidy or the child care scholarship. So I believe those limits need to be raised a little more so more parents can receive assistance.

MARTIN: That was Brenda Hawkins. She's a day care provider in Upper Marlboro, Md. Miss Brenda, thank you so much for talking with us.

HAWKINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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