In a past life, I was a child and youth care worker. It was my first "real" job out of college. I worked in residential treatment, with children who had been taken out of their families' homes for (sometimes truly horrifying) abuse or neglect. (There was a subset of cases that also came down to one parent or the other having truly tragic taste in significant others.) Then I spent a stint as a foster care case worker.
Considering the overall stress level and high stakes of these jobs, the pay was abysmal. When I first started, the secretaries made more per hour than we did. When I finally gave it up and moved to Washington State, the first job that I was able to find and really hold on to was testing video games. It was a step up. By the time I'd really started building a career for myself as a software tester, about a year later, I'd doubled my salary. There was less paid time off, but other than that, the benefits were comparable. I'd gone from a job that placed the health and well-being of vulnerable, and previously victimized children in my hands to one that pretty much little more than: "Take this program and make sure it does what we say it does." And even though I'd felt well paid at the job, all things considered, that was just proof that I didn't understand the job market I was living in.
And so when I read the headline of NPR's piece: "Poverty Wages For U.S. Child Care Workers May Be Behind High Turnover," my first thought was: "ya think?" And the article isn't talking about the hard cases, the people who are working with the children with special needs, past traumas or mental health issues. It's talking about the run of the mill workers in daycare centers and the like.
When I was a child care worker, it was decided that salaries needed to be increased, and I was drafted into a working group to discuss how to make it work. At one point their was a presentation about salaries in the industry, and the idea that our organization, in order to attract the best candidates, wanted to make sure that we paid within the top 25%. "That sounds reasonable," I remember myself saying, "But it doesn't get you around the fact that the top 25% of no money is still no money." When you can match the pay rate of a child care worker by testing Playstation games all day (which, from having done it, I can tell you is a lot less fun than it sounds), it's going to be hard to find child care workers.
The closing of the article is one of the heartbreaking things that a lot of us had to deal with:
Antunes says she's passionate about her work, and the thought of leaving the field makes her feel guilty. She knows the child care system desperately needs people like her to stay.The problem now is that the system relies on passionate people not wanting to leave. But that forces people into difficult choices. I left, because in the end, it was a really high-stress position to be in, especially as a man. People tend to look at men who work around children with suspicion, and in the field, I found myself pushed into the enforcer/disciplinarian role, which reduced the amount of time you could really enjoy what you did for a living.
The times, they have a-changed, and I don't think that things would have worked out as well for me now, as they did then. The Dot-Com boom was still reverberating, and software jobs were thick on the ground. Rather than needing any specialized education or credentials, you simply needed to be bright enough to be trainable to do the work. In contrast to social service work. The bar in Washington State was higher than that in Illinois. From looking at the classified ads, I realized that once I'd moved here, I no longer had the qualifications to work a job that I'd just spent four and a half years doing. But that still leaves Ms. Antunes, after 30 years in the field, and having had to return to school to earn a four-year degree, making little more than the starting wage at the McDonald's nearest to my home.
And people still think that child care is too expensive.