There’s an overwhelming demand for child care in California but not enough people who provide it. The industry is notorious for offering low pay and long hours. Several bills pending in the Legislature seek to address these problems, including one that would let in-home providers unionize.
It's a measure that longtime in-home provider Pat Alexander is passionate about.
Alexander runs Alexander Preschool and Child Care out of her home in Elk Grove (Sacramento County). On a recent morning, a group of 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds work on getting their wiggles out before breakfast. The kids alternate between dancing around and falling to the ground in time with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
As the kids dance, Alexander, better known as Miss Pat, gets the food together in her small kitchen. When it’s time to eat, her husband, known as Mr. Ed, gets everyone settled at miniature tables and begins doling out waffles and sausages.
It’s controlled chaos, but Alexander is used to it. She's been in the child care business for a long time.
“It'll be 49 years next month," she said.
It has not always been easy, but Alexander enjoys the work. She is one of more than 27,000 in-home child care providers in the state. It’s far from a lucrative career. She and her husband watch a dozen kids. And, like all businesses, Alexander has to keep her rates competitive. Right now she charges about $600 a month per child. That means she and her husband make about $24,000 a year combined. She estimates they each work 55 hours a week, which comes out to $4.20 per hour.
“And that doesn't count my before-hours or my after-hours," she said. "This morning I was up at 6 o'clock getting ready for the kids to be here at 7. And then at night we're putting things away and cleaning up, and the weekends grocery shopping.”
Alexander, who will be 69 in August, was planning to retire next year.
“Now I'm looking at 2025. Another extra five years," she said. "The only thing I might change is, I might go down to a small group, so I can handle it alone. So my husband can kind of take it easy because his health is getting really bad. It's harder for him all the time.”
Hiring an assistant is out of the question because Alexander can’t afford to pay the state’s minimum wage.
After breakfast the children head outside to play in the backyard. Pat and Ed have transformed it into a mini-playground, complete with slides, water table and playhouse the kids are constantly repairing with their plastic tools. It was a big investment.
Alexander does get some income from the state by taking care of kids who qualify for child care subsidies. But she says it can be frustrating dealing with the bureaucracy.
“I have to limit myself on how many subsidy families I can take because it takes so long to get paid," she said. "So I would work all of July, say, and it wouldn't be till mid-August before I got paid for July. So I'm looking at six weeks of no pay there.”
On top of that delay, the reimbursement rates offered by the state are often less than what Alexander charges for her service. That leaves her with the tough decision — absorb the cost difference or ask her already financially strapped families to pay more.