Parents, childcare providers and state officials on Tuesday urged Governor Jerry Brown to sign a controversial bill, AB 101, that would allow family childcare providers to collectively bargain with government agencies.
At a press conference organized by the labor union SEIU in downtown Oakland, supporters of the bill emphasized the important role childcare providers play both in strengthening the local economy, and in supporting women workers.
“AB 101 is about jobs,” Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) told reporters. “It’s about jobs for the small businesswomen who run home childcare centers, and it’s about jobs for the mothers of young children who need a stable, safe, supportive place to leave their children while they go to work.”
Beverly Reliford, who has worked as a childcare provider in Hayward since 1978, said that during tough economic times, Bay Area working parents need affordable, flexible childcare more than ever. “We have providers who work every shift there is,” she said. “We’re community based, small businesses right there ready to serve these families no matter what hours they work.”
AB 101 would grant certain labor rights to self-employed, homebased providers like Reliford, who receive government subsidies to care for low-income children. Chiefly, it would exempt them from federal and state anti-trust laws that prohibit business owners from forming coalitions with one another for the purposes of controlling or influencing industry.
Unlike government employees who can join and form unions to negotiate labor terms with their employer, childcare providers are considered business owners subject to anti-trust laws. As such, they contract with government agencies individually, with little to no say in the terms of the agreement.
“We want to represent them,” said Courtni Pugh, a member of Childcare Providers United, an affiliate of SEIU that has been pushing for the passage of AB 101. “They want to join the union, but they cannot.“
Under AB 101, however, childcare providers would be able to collectively bargain with government agencies about industry regulations, grievances and payment practices, among other issues.
Reliford said the bill would, for the first time, give childcare workers like herself the right to participate in decisions about their own industry — how and when they are reimbursed for government-subsidized childcare, for example. At present, childcare reimbursements are generally haphazard; in some cases, the lag in payment is so long that childcare providers can’t cover overhead costs and go out of business.
“We have seen more and more of them disappear because of steadily dwindling reimbursement rates,” said Hancock, noting that 5,700 childcare providers closed their doors last year. “They just can’t keep up.”
“Many of them haven’t been paid in four months,” said Pugh. “They want things like a regular pay date, yet they don’t actually have a grievance process.” AB 101 would address those issues, she said.
Despite broad legislative support for the measure, however, some childcare organizations remain skeptical that the bill would actually improve working conditions for providers — or quality of care for children.
“The conception that these providers would be able to negotiate their rate is unfortunately inaccurate,” said Nina Buthee, director of the California Child Development administrators Association, a statewide advocacy group that supports publicly funded early childhood care and education.
“For years and years, statewide associations have been calling attention to the fact that reimbursement rates are too low,” she said. “If it was as easy as going in and negotiating, then other statewide organizations would have been able to do this already.”
The fact that the bill was passed as a strike-everything amendment — meaning that legislators replaced the content of one bill with that of another very late in the legislative process, to ensure that it would pass with little debate — is also a source of contention among childcare advocates, some of whom question the motives behind this tactic.
“We think the goal they say they’re trying to achieve is noble,” said Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Association for the Education of Young Children and a vocal opponent of the measure. “But the way this was pushed through was not good policy.”
Because of the speed with which the bill was passed, no information on the potential cost of the measure was ever presented, she added.
Another contentious issue is the fact that the bill would impact both licensed providers — those who are regulated by the state — and a slightly larger group of “license-exempt” providers — unlicensed individuals (usually family members) who are nevertheless reimbursed for taking care of subsidized, low-income children.
While licensed providers must pass a background check, complete childhood education training and undergo regulatory inspections, other individuals can forego the licensing process on the grounds that they only care for members of their own family, or exclusively care for one other family.
“These unlicensed providers don’t undergo inspections for safety or health,” said Giarde. “Some of these people wouldn’t even pass a fingerprint check because of past violent crime. This bill equates those people with professional, licensed childcare providers who do undergo background checks and inspections.”
Buthee concurred, noting that California ranks 50th in regulating childcare providers, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. “At the state level, they are not required to pass a background check, “she said, “so some could conceivably have committed sex-related crimes towards children and they are still allowed to care for children and receive subsidized funding. So we don’t think we should be able to unionize folks who aren’t able to pass a fingerprint clearance.”
While AB 101 advocates admit that the bill doesn’t address state regulation of unlicensed childcare providers, they argue that the measure doesn’t preclude future regulation.
“The bill doesn’t mandate licensing,” Pugh said. “It does allow them to collectively address new and current regulations and procedures.” By joining a professional organization like Childcare Providers United, she added, unlicensed providers would also have greater access to professional development and training opportunities, which would increase quality of care, overall.
Ultimately, advocates argue that the measure makes economic sense, because the availability of childcare providers strengthens local economies.
“This industry is really important to the California economy as a whole,” said Laurel Lucia, a policy analyst at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. At the press conference, Lucia presented findings from a report she published this July on the economic impact of childcare.
Every dollar that is invested in early childcare, she said, results in significant returns ranging from $2-7. “Even though unemployment is really high right now, we can’t afford to let the childcare system gets weakened, because it takes a lot of time to build it back up,” she said. “Just like roads and highways, it’s an important part of our economic system.”
Giarde acknowledges that recent budget cuts to childcare services, including those limiting childcare subsidy programs, have a tremendous impact on both families and the economy. “But AB 101 isn’t going to create new childcare slots for children,” she said. “We do need to have a larger conversation about compensation for childcare workers across the board, but that conversation needs to be about both compensation and quality.”
Governor Brown has until October 9 to sign or veto the measure.