Kids at Alexander Preschool and Child Care in Elk Grove prepare to start their day. (Katie Orr/KQED)
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.
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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.
Alexander would like to have more say over the state rules that affect her business. That’s why she’s such a strong supporter of Assembly Bill 378. The bill would allow in-home day care providers to unionize. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, supports the bill. He said unionizing could give child care workers a voice and help incentivize them to stay in the industry.
“Many times they can go get a job at a fast food restaurant or Costco and make more money," he said. "And that leaves a lot of uncertainty for the workforce. And that impacts, not only themselves, but also the kids in these programs.”
AB 378 is currently making its way through the state Senate. Several similar bills have either died or been vetoed by governors in the past. But supporters are hoping Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign the measure if it gets to his desk.
Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute think tank, said supporting in-home providers is especially important.
"In California, more than half of low-income kids younger than 6 who have working parents fall into groups (that) are less likely to be able to use child care centers," she said. "That includes families who work nontraditional hours, who have infants and toddlers, live in rural areas, have kids with special needs. All those groups are likely to need in-home providers."
Alexander is actively working to help the industry evolve, to make it more supportive and sustainable for people like her.
“Making sure people understand I'm not a babysitter," she said. "Just changing our whole image has been a hard change, but it's gradually coming about.”
She hopes some day soon more people will recognize those in her field as experienced professionals.