By William Clark
Demonstrators held a noonday rally in downtown Riverside earlier this month to encourage Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to put his signature to a bill which they say would significantly improve the lives and working conditions of child care workers by providing them better pay and affordable health insurance.
Assembling around a canopied platform erected just steps from the California Building, the site of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's satellite office, the demonstrators carried large signs and placards and shouted "Arnold, sign AB 1164". Rally organizers addressed the crowd on large speakers and occasionally led them in chants of "Come on Arnold, have a heart. Kids deserve a better start" and "If parents can't afford to pay, providers can't afford to stay."
Thursday's rally attracted one prominent local politician who turned out to show his support for AB 1164. Riverside City Councilmember Dom Betro, himself a child care provider who also operates a non-profit organization that provides child-care centers, remarked that the show of solidarity among the rally's participants will send a strong message to Governor Schwarzenegger that affordable, quality child care is an issue of paramount importance to California.
"It is important for people who provide child care to have a stable work environment, to have living wages, to have benefits, and to have the ability to care for kids knowing that their own needs are being met. [There is] no way for child care centers alone to meet this crisis. We need a viable day care provider that is alive and well and providing care for your kids in California. This bill will insure that. Today, I'm standing with you the providers, the parents, the kids and the small businesses to ask our governor to give our child care providers a voice to improve child care in Riverside and the state of California," he said.
Assembly Bill (AB) 1164 was introduced by Kevin de León, a member of the California State Assembly. The Web site for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is endorsing the bill, says AB 1164 will give child care providers the freedom to form a democratic organization of their choosing. Workers can also bargain collectively for fair wages and better working conditions.
The bill is modeled on similar bills that have been passed in other states, where providers have worked together through their unions to reduce childcare cost and have gained access to affordable health insurance.
"Providers are making below minimum wage...less than $4.00 an hour. And many child care providers face a myriad of problems, including late payment of wages and a real lack of necessary medical coverage. Riverside County has the worst ratio in terms of available child care providers versus child care needs. Many providers are leaving the system because they can't make ends meet. This bill will give all child care providers a necessary voice and help them to do their jobs that much better," said one organizer.
Opponents of AB 1164 argue the bill will violate federal anti-trust laws and will set the stage for price-fixing by child care providers. Organizers insist that, although the bill does advocate the overall stability of the child care industry through the collective activities of providers, a system of checks-and-balances will prevent any collusion on price-fixing.
A 2005 study by the National Economic Development and Law Center on the economic impact of the child care industry in Riverside County found that while child care in Riverside generates revenue of $230 million annually, Riverside had the lowest proportion of spaces for licensed child care per child. Nearly 15,000 children who are eligible for subsidized child [home] care remain on waiting list due to the shortage of licensed facilities. The study found that on average, a family child care provider who is licensed to care for 14 children and works up to 60 hours a week receives only $15,000 a year in wages. Providers pay all out of pocket expenses for all books, toys, food and necessary educational supplies. Advocates for AB 1164 say that such dire statistics account for the staggering 40% turnover rate among family child care workers.
A common theme among many of the providers who turned out for Thursday's rally was the belief that child care workers provide a vital need in the community. But they say they are disenchanted with the apathy and indifference of their elected state officials. Several workers said they are struggling just to meet their personal financial obligations. One provider commented that she hasn't been paid in nearly 60 days and that she is unsure how she is going to make her mortgage payment this month. Concerned about the tardiness of her paycheck, she phoned her agency. She said that a state worker, speaking to her in confidence, told her that one payroll worker is often assigned up to 3,000 timesheets for processing in a single pay period, and that the average worker can only process 50 timesheets a day. Since she lacks health insurance, she says she has not been able to visit a doctor for a physical examination in over two years. She insists the real issue for her is not one of money, but one of respect and acknowledgement from the government for the valuable services childcare workers provide.
"We don't want the Governor to see us as just babysitters. We're much more than that. By caring for these kids we are taking care of the future. It's not all about the money, it's about respect. We're providing a valuable service to our community and to California. We're a second family for many of these kids ...a second home for these children," she said.
Speakers at the rally also addressed the problematic situation of parents who work, but who are still unable to afford childcare.
Erika Kraut, an unemployed mother of two from Rialto, found herself in such a position when she was laid off her job. Kraut said that at the time she didn't think she was doing anything wrong by finding another position. The child care assistance program thought differently; they disqualified her because they say she failed to notify their office that she had been laid off. Unable to afford child care without state assistance, Kraut lost her second job because there was no one to care for her two daughters while she worked. Kraut was placed in an absurd "catch 22" situation: without affordable child care she could not work, and without work she could not afford child care. She says many families in California face this problem everyday and that for many parents the only viable alternative is to seek public assistance. The most painful part of the ordeal, Kraut says, is the effect it has had on her two daughters.
"[They] really miss going to their day care, because it was an early education program. It's hard to explain to them that they can't go to day care anymore. Day care providers need a voice so that no parent will have to worry about whether their child will get that kind of support," she said.
Bishop Eugene Jones, Sr., director of Change of Heart Ministries in San Bernardino and a speaker at Thursday's rally, says that he is convinced that many of the ills affecting the childcare system can be remedied with one stroke of the governor's pen. Jones, whose wife and daughter-in-law are child care providers, says the shortage of quality care is directly attributable to the dire conditions that exist for most workers.
"Many [providers] have left because they don't have affordable health care, so they've gotta go back into the workforce. California is the only state that doesn't provide health care for its child care providers. They love what they do, but they've got responsibilities too, so they have to do what they need to do. Child care is a vital part of our community and our state. Our children are now. We have to educate them while their young. Child care provides them with good character and good morals and teaches them good social skills for their future. We need to encourage more [providers] to stay in this field," he said.
As Jones closed his speech, his final remark drew spontaneous clapping and shouts of "amen" from many in the crowd.
"Governor Schwarzenegger, we are gathered here today to let you know that this is not Burger King. You can't have it your way. Our children don't need more prisons to be built. Do the right thing and sign AB 1164," he concluded.