When Pyrena Hui considered what field of work she’d pursue as a recent immigrant from Hong Kong to the United States, her family was a top priority. She debated whether to stay home to care for the child she planned to have with her husband, or launch a new career.
As an early childhood educator, she figured she’d be able to do both. And since 2015, she’s run Modern Education Family Childcare-Portola out of her San Francisco home, where she has cared for up to 14 kids from birth through age 5 and grown close to their families.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, Hui’s modest but carefully constructed future and business — one of the tens of thousands of licensed day cares in California — was thrown into uncertainty. Families working from home or out of work no longer brought their children to her cheery corner lot home on Sweeney Street with a red tile roof. And for the few that did, she has to invest heavily in costly cleaning supplies, masks and gloves.
“Lose the business and we may lose our home too,” she said in an interview with The Imprint, describing her fears of the past year as she’s scraped by to stay in business.
The latest federal stimulus bill includes billions of dollars for schools and child care, but there are deep, and longstanding problems to address.
According to a recent report from University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, 166,000 jobs were lost in the child care industry nationwide during the first eight months of the pandemic. In California alone, 2,599 home day cares and 523 child care centers closed between March 1, 2020, and Jan. 25, Department of Social Services records show.
“We knew coming into the pandemic that the system as a whole is fragile and under-resourced,” said Lea Austin, director of the UC-Berkeley child care research center. Last month, Austin’s team released its most recent biennial report detailing conditions for the child care workforce, which is largely women of color doing some of society’s most essential work for scant pay.
The Early Childhood Workforce Index — an in-depth examination of labor conditions across all 50 states and the District of Columbia — provides a state-by-state comparison of wages and poverty rates, as well as policy recommendations that support those in the field. Since the release of the first index in 2016, the findings have consistently shown that child care providers are among the lowest-paid workers in the nation, who struggle to support their own families as they care for others. The most recent figures show a national average pay of $11.65 an hour.
Yet since the pandemic, Austin said only a handful of states have offered hazard or bonus pay to child care providers.
“Few states, including California, have done much for this workforce,” Austin said.
The workforce index, a unique data set, shows the field is made up almost entirely of women, and 53% are members of families who rely on government income to survive. Californians in the field earn an average of $13.43 hourly, well under the pay of workers handing out burgers and fries at In-N-Out drive-throughs.
Adjusted for cost-of-living in this high cost state, California child care workers rank 33rd in the nation, the UC Berkeley researchers reported last month. Seventeen percent of the state’s early childhood educators live in poverty.
In December, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a multibillion-dollar plan to expand paid family leave and provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds and many 3-year-olds. To improve the quality of state-subsidized care, the statewide plan also calls for lowering staff-to-child ratios and offering higher pay and training opportunities for child care providers.
But Austin said the policies need to go further to address the persistent poor conditions for child care workers — acutely felt during the pandemic.
Women of color comprise a majority of the child care workforce, but in 2019, according to the child care research center, Black early educators made an average of 78 cents less per hour than their white counterparts, even those with similar educational backgrounds.
They faced compounded pressures last year: a wage gap, on top of a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
The Los Angeles County Public Health Department recently announced that as of March 1, all child care providers are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. But protection from the deadly disease arrives after a devastating year.
“We know with COVID that people who have low incomes and people who are Black and Latinx are disproportionately impacted, are more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die,” said Austin. “Look at the early childhood workforce — that’s who they are.”
Early in the pandemic, San Francisco County closed child care facilities to all families, except those with essential workers. And although this helped protect child care providers’ health, the loss of income was devastating for many small businesses.
Even before California’s mask mandate in June, Hui knew she needed to invest in personal protective equipment. She was a middle-schooler in Hong Kong during the SARS pandemic, so when COVID-19 began to spread, she asked her family back home to send her masks.
Knowing how important facial cues are for babies, she ordered the type with transparent plastic over the mouth, so they could see her smile. She said she received a government reimbursement, but it wasn’t nearly enough to cover those costs.
Despite receiving a $15,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan last fall, Hui had to dip into her family’s personal savings to pay her assistant.
But she has kept her business open despite the hardship, and now Hui and her husband, Oscar Tang, will have another child to care for in the coming months: their first child, due in April. She said her husband will likely take time off from his job as a senior eligibility worker while she takes maternity leave — a circumstance she doesn’t take for granted.
“Not every family child care is that lucky,” she said.