All Work and Low Pay: The Struggle of California's In-Home Child Care Providers

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A woman wearing a purple t-shirt and black face mask sits next to a child holding red scissors.
Yolanda Thomas works on an art project with a child at the day care she runs from her home in Pittsburg on Dec. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The doorbell at Yolanda Thomas’ house in Pittsburg set off a flurry of sound: a barking dog, the high-pitched voices of children and Thomas’ hurried footsteps as she made her way to the door and opened it.

She flashed a big smile, her face framed by long braids. She wore black workout pants and a purple T-shirt with “Child Care” written on the front, the two Cs intersecting like the Chanel logo.

Signs on the front door explained COVID-19 safety protocols for washing hands and wearing masks. Inside, a list of parents’ rights (PDF) from the California Department of Social Services hung next to a giant collage of kid photos. Binders overflowing with lesson plans sat on a shelf next to a portable crib.

Thomas, 46, is one of nearly 25,000 family child care providers in the state who operate licensed day cares and preschools out of their homes. Home child care providers earn the least in a low-paying industry, according to an August report from UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. They are also less likely to have health coverage than workers at child care centers.

A Black woman wearing a purple t-shirt that says "Child care" stands outside.
Yolanda Thomas stands outside her Pittsburg home, where she runs a day care, on Dec. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Women of color make up 71% of home care providers, according to a 2020 CSCCE workforce survey published in January, with 37% identifying as Latina, 12% as Black, 12% as Asian and 6% as multiethnic. More than half are over the age of 50, and few have retirement savings.

“There are equity implications to a lot of this data,” said Elena Montoya, a lead researcher at CSCCE.

In 2019, 60% of Californians lived somewhere in which the number of spots in licensed child care facilities did not meet the demand (PDF), according to the Center for American Progress. While the sector added 4,900 jobs in October, CSCCE, citing data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported that child care employment is 8.4% below what it was in February 2020.

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“Until we’re really willing to acknowledge that the system is funded through these really low wages that these mostly women of color make in our state, and until we’re willing to address that, programs are going to continue to struggle to hire people,” Montoya said.

The median annual salary range for small family child care providers like Thomas, who is Black, is between $16,200 to $30,000, according to CSCCE. Thomas, who has more than two decades of experience, said she usually earns around $38,000 per year. She earned almost $59,000 in 2021, because she received a one-time revitalization grant from a community investment fund along with other pandemic-related grants from First 5 Contra Costa and the state.

“This is a field of service,” she said. “And if you’re not ready to be a servant, then you should not be in this field because everything you do and everything you think about is for someone else’s benefit.”

A woman wearing a purple t-shirt and black face mask sits with three children at a desk as they do arts and crafts in a building.
Yolanda Thomas works on an art project with the children at her day care at her home in Pittsburg on Dec. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thomas serves meals to kids, picks them up from school and helps with homework — the type of full-service care that many families with two working parents need.

“This is a mirror of what the children receive at home,” said Thomas, who currently cares for seven children between the ages 8 months and 10 years old. “Me and the parents work hand in hand, whatever they’re going through. We have one family that’s going through divorce, so I make sure to let the child know that they’re okay, that if they ever have a question they can ask me.”

That deep connection with families is why some child care providers prefer to work out of their homes instead of in larger child care centers.

“It’s more intimate to me,” said Freada Woody, owner and director of Gigi’s Precious Hearts Daycare in Antioch.

Woody’s home is also part house and part school. The living room has a large brown couch and a TV. Between them stretches a long table surrounded by colorful plastic chairs for children. The dining room has a wall of cubbies filled with toys and books, and a decorative sign displaying the “Playroom Rules.”

Woody, 64, currently watches four children ranging in ages from 10 months to 10 years old. Before the pandemic, she consistently cared for eight kids, she said.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. because a lot of the parents she works with have long commutes so the kids get dropped off as early as 6:30 a.m., she said. When the kids arrive, Woody plays calming music. During breakfast, they review school work. After breakfast, Woody drops the older kids off at school and has one-on-one time with her youngest child until noon.

“Then I get the other two and I do homework with them,” said Woody, who is Black. “We eat lunch, we talk about our days. We read every day. We do a lot of crafts.”

Woody says after the kids get picked up around 6:30 p.m., “we clean and disinfect this whole house. It takes us about an hour and a half to clean. But I have my son and I have my niece. That helps me.”

In addition to the almost 25,000 home-based providers who own their businesses, 13,200 paid teacher assistants work in home-based child care across the state. An additional 7,000 teacher assistants — often partners and relatives who share a home with a primary provider — are unpaid.

Thomas relies on her husband, Brian Thomas.

A man wearing a gray hoodie holds a child facing a window in a building.
Brian Thomas, Yolanda's husband, holds one of the children at the day care at their home in Pittsburg on Dec. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“He’ll do grocery runs. He’ll transport, he’ll go pick up,” said Thomas, who chose to be a home-based provider, in part so she could be at home with her children. “But he’s behind the scenes.”

Before Woody became licensed, she watched kids for her family and friends.

“They paid me for gas or material because I always did arts,” she said. “I taught the girls how to cook and braid their hair. I taught all the kids how to tie their shoes, but that was just natural stuff that you do.”

It wasn’t until a neighbor reported Woody for having an unlicensed day care that she even knew that a license was required to care for more than one child she wasn’t related to. When licensing officials came to Woody’s home to check on the neighbor’s complaint, they asked Woody if she wanted to become licensed.

She did, and 14 years later, Woody is licensed to care for up to eight kids. She said she regularly attends professional development training and participates in the Quality Matters program, an initiative of First 5 Contra Costa to improve child care quality.

According to the CSCCE report, the annual median income for teachers at child care centers statewide is $39,500. In the Bay Area, that rises to $45,800. That’s $7,000 more than Thomas typically earns.

“I think because we are at home, a lot of legislators, big wigs, parents — just people that don’t know the field — they think because we’re at home, it’s easy, but being at home makes it harder,” Thomas said. “Every day it’s like [family child care providers] have to fight to try to get noticed.”

An overhead view of a woman wearing a purple t-shirt and black face mask siting with three children at a desk as they do arts and crafts in a building.
Yolanda Thomas works on an art project with the children at the day care she runs from her home in Pittsburg on Dec. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The more an early childhood education role is paid, the fewer women of color there are in that role. Women of color make up 65% of center-based teachers, but that number dips to 45% for center directors who tend to make the most money.

One of CSCCE’s recommendations for policymakers is to make compensation for child care providers equal to that of transitional kindergarten teachers, including paid planning time and increased pay for additional degrees and specializations.

Montoya said that compensation should be based on what it costs caregivers to provide quality care, not on market rates or on what parents are able to afford.

“Parents just can’t do more and the programs are doing all they can to meet their expenses and pay their workforce,” said Montoya. “It’s a very labor-heavy field.”

Because of inflation, Woody is buying smaller plants for gardening lessons. Thomas has changed how she cuts fruit in hopes that three apples can stretch as far as four used to. She now buys generic brands.

Woody had money saved that has allowed her to make it through the financial squeeze brought on by the pandemic and rising gas prices. She knows that’s not the case for many providers who have left the field.

“People who love this business, they’re not going to be having the opportunity to really do what they want to do because they’re struggling,” Woody said.