New Mexico In Depth 2020 Legislative Special Edition

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Low pay a stumbling block for quality childcare By SYLVIA ULLOA New Mexico In Depth

Michelle Masiwemai — like many early childhood workers — is a mom. But her job at a Las Cruces homebased child care center didn’t pay enough to support her 8-year-old daughter, who lives with her parents in Guam while she and her fiancé try to get on firmer financial footing. The daughter of two educators, including a kindergarten teacher who now teaches early childhood education at the college level, Masiwemai was raised in a family of 10 children. “My whole life I’ve been around children. I was a babysitter. I was the little girl who took care of all the little kids at the parties and planned all the activities. That was me,” she said. Masiwemai has a bachelor’s degree in early education and speaks three languages. She exudes warmth and nurturing when reading to toddlers, sounding out words and getting down on the floor to interact with them. She’s exactly the type of worker New Mexico wants educating and caring for its youngest children. But low wages ensure that child care can’t be a long-term career path if she wants to reunite with her daughter and add to her family. Masiwemai’s pay dilemma is nearly universal here and throughout the United States: A child care worker who loves children but can’t make ends meet on the low wages. “One thing we do have in this state is a shortage of highly qualified early childhood workers, and the reason we have that shortage is we’re not willing to pay,” said Kelly O’Donnell, a research assistant professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of New Mexico. “You can’t take care of an infant like you flip burgers, right? But we pay them

Courtesy of Michelle Masiwemai

Michelle Masiwemai takes a selfie with some of the children she cared for at Best of the Southwest Daycare in Las Cruces. the same amount.” Those low wages stand in the way of New Mexico’s ambitious goals for universal PreK and affordable, high quality childcare. A high priority for state officials is to raise wages while not making child care centers go bust or asking parents to shoulder more of the costs. To that end, the Children Youth and Families Department has launched a pilot program that puts more money in workers’ paychecks, and hopes the results will persuade state lawmakers to take the program statewide in 2020.

Status quo: Expensive, tough, low

Licensed child care is expensive for parents and tough to make profitable for private child care center operators. Low wages are built into the business model, as are hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies from New Mexico taxpayers. The median wage for New Mexico child care workers was $9.49 an hour in 2018, according to the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions. Staff turnover is a major dilem-

ma for operators. Workers who do stick around and receive a degree in early childhood education are often snapped up by public schools, which offer pay that’s nearly three times higher with benefits and summers off. Paying more is difficult for childcare centers, which cobble together revenue to make their businesses viable. Parents — and even many lawmakers — may not know how heavily public dollars support child care providers. It’s so large that the Continued on 25 ➤

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