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Home-based child care providers move to unionize

About 20 years ago, Nancy Gerber realized the impact that the low wages she received as a home-based child care provider in Washington state had on her family. At the time she was caring for no more than 10 children, including her own.

“My husband was working at the time, so the income I had was supplemental, and I just never looked beyond my own backyard," she said. "When I did, I was shocked. When my husband was hurt on his job, and my income was now necessary, it was an even bigger wake-up call.”

Gerber, now 58, faced the same situation as other child care providers: “I never realized that providers were closing their doors, not by choice, but because they couldn’t meet the basic needs of their families: food, shelter, health insurance and clothes.”

The effect of the low wages was evident, Gerber said. “Providers were leaving the profession at an alarming rate,” she said. “So much so that the presidents of our two family child care associations decided they needed to look outside the box for solutions. They went union shopping.”

Ultimately, the two child care associations in Washington decided to work with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) because their model was “member driven, with members making the decisions,” Gerber said.

Over the last two years, home-based child care providers around the country have slowly been taking steps toward forming a union. The providers do not fall under existing labor laws because they are self-employed business operators and work out of their homes.

In most cases, there is only one provider working with several children; the maximum number varies from state to state. For example, in Maryland, providers are allowed to have only six children, with no more than two being under age 2.

As a result, large unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have advocated on their behalf, in order to get the states to promise benefits and better wages.

To avoid competing against each other in their organizing efforts, SEIU and AFSCME have agreed to divide the states they are trying to unionize. However, in some states, like Pennsylvania, the two unions are working together.

Since 2005, 11 states have taken steps toward unionization. So far, Illinois, Oregon and Washington have signed contracts with unions; Illinois recently negotiated a three-year, $250 million contract that gives the providers subsidy rate increases, includes money toward health insurance and defines grievance procedures. Child care providers are able to opt out from joining the union, but are required to pay fees regardless of whether or not they join.

But the complexities of home-based child care have made unionizing difficult. Unions in some states, like Washington, have thrived, while they are meeting resistance in others, like Maryland.

Donna Fowler, director of policy for the Maryland State Family Child Care Association (MSFCCA), says that one reason the relationship has been unsuccessful in that state is because SEIU does not understand how the system of subsidies, which are paid by the state to help offset the cost of child care for low-income families, functions.

“There has to be some understanding that the child care subsidy system is not provider driven," Fowler said. "Until a parent walks through the door and comes to me specifically for care, I’ll never get it. I have no control over it, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The Maryland association is a volunteer, professional organization made up of home-based child care providers. Although the association has a strong relationship with the state, that is not true in most cases. State associations of child care providers are not viewed as a threat to the union organizations, with the exception of Maryland, because the associations often ask the unions to help them make the issues that affect home-based child care providers more visible.

The lack of choice for union representation, the Maryland association argues, also caused conflict. Maryland became one of the states designated to work with SEIU, even though the Maryland association members believe that ASFCME would be a better match because that union's goals mesh better with the state.

Both unions have different goals. ASFCME wants to organize all licensed providers, while SEIU wants to organize only providers who take in children who receive subsidies. In Maryland, SEIU has proposed to set a fee that is paid to the union based on the percentage of the subsidy fees paid to the provider. The fees are similar to union dues.

Debbie Moore, director of public policy for the National Association for Family Child Care, said the fact that child care providers in Maryland already had such strong representation did not sit well with the union, which used a lack of representation as a selling point for providers.

“They were telling providers they had no voice unless they organized with them,” Moore said, adding that some child care providers found their lack of research “offensive.” Another problem, Fowler said, was that the union was secretive, and has been that way from the very beginning.

“We started hearing rumors that there was a union trying to work with child care, but the state association could never get a meeting with them," Fowler said. "We found out where the group was meeting, and we showed up. We didn’t know why they were here, what they were doing. That’s why we got involved.”

Arvin Smith, a spokesman for SEIU, admits that things have not been operating smoothly in Maryland. “We’ve been less successful in Maryland," Smith said. "It’s harder to find common ground there. But we’ve also been successful in other places.”

One of those places is Washington, where providers recently signed a new agreement with the state that would give them better wages and training, as well as access to health care.

“In Washington, the association felt powerless and invited SEIU in,” Moore said.

“Each state will have slightly different needs," said Gerber, the child care provider in Washington, "but what we have discovered is that all providers need a voice that will always be there. There are times in each state when the climate is good and times it isn't. We need to be a part of decisions that affect providers and the children and families we serve. SEIU has provided that for us.”

In Pennsylvania, SEIU and AFSCME have been working as a team to unionize providers. Bonnie Caldwell, who has been a home-based child care provider for 17 years, has been working with AFSCME and says the experience of working toward unionization has been wonderful.

“It’s given the providers a lot of confidence," she said. "They don’t get the respect they deserve, and it’s great to see them finally getting it.” Caldwell has also been working with United Child Care Union and National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.

Faye Zepeda, an organizer for AFSCME in Oregon and a former child care provider, agreed. Because the demands of child care providers are not often heard by the state, “the providers really felt they needed a union to get respect.”

The home-based child care unions are history in the making, she said.

“In the last 10 months, child care has accomplished more than at any other time,” she said.

E-mail: alb2145@columbia.edu