Although working parents have always known this, the COVID pandemic made employers acutely aware of the importance of child care for their workers and the economy. When the pandemic took off and schools shut their doors, workers found themselves scrambling to find care for their children as they juggled home, school and work simultaneously. Some were forced to leave their positions. It became clear that more than any other sector, child care makes it possible for Alaska’s workforce to show up, focus on their jobs and support the aims of their employers.
In Alaska, child care has been open throughout the pandemic due to the commitment of early childhood educators. Many of these essential workers have shown up to work without health care or paid leave. It hasn’t been easy, but they have risen to the challenge and successfully navigated government mandates and implemented mitigation to keep children safe and healthy. They also adapted to support school-age children and virtual learning.
These essential workers provide critical support to working families. They are key to Alaska’s full economic recovery. More than 6,500 professionals make up the sector’s workforce and also contribute to our economy. With the anticipated funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Alaska has an opportunity to not only stabilize the sector but also make a long-term investment in this system, a critical infrastructure for our state. But what will it take to build the system back better? It is a complex issue that comes with many potential solutions, likely requiring a hybrid of public and private investments.
We have to think long term. Like children, a system can take years to flourish. We need to establish a strong foundation for the future of this critical support system with the goal of affordable child care for all working families supported by a professional, fairly compensated workforce. We must think beyond just availability of child care to the quality of child care. This begins with recognition and support for the child care workforce.
Currently, many early educators hold second jobs, aren’t able to support their own families and use the food bank. Wages in the child care sector are among the lowest in the economy, averaging $12 per hour with little to no benefits. Yet the people employed in this sector are entrusted with the care and education of children at a critical time of learning.
Many leave the field when a better paying job with benefits becomes available. Early educators spend 8-10 hours a day caring for young children and are a partner to families in their child’s development and care. We must support this workforce by acknowledging them for the professionals they are with fair compensation and opportunities for the training and education they need to help young children grow and develop.
We must prioritize child care as an essential service and provide adequate funding for child care programs. We need to target efforts to help recruit, train and retain a qualified child care workforce. We must offer a minimum wage for early educators that is a thriving wage and ensure that our educational institutions have the programs necessary to maintain and support a skilled and professional workforce pipeline. If we value our children, if we want a full economic recovery, then we must value this workforce.
For more information on how we might make the most of this opportunity provided by the federal dollars coming to Alaska, see the thread’s recommendations (www.threadalaska.org/thread/COVID19-Resource-Center). Thread, Alaska’s Child Care Resource and Referral Network, offers services to families, early educators, child care programs and communities statewide.
The conversation around child care has been raised through the pandemic and we have an opportunity to better support our working families and employers. We must thank and recognize the tremendous contribution early educators make to our state. May is a month of national recognition for early educators. Take the time to say thank you for their essential work to keep Alaska moving over these past months. Show your gratitude by calling on policy makers to support this sector critical for our economic recovery and stability in the future.
Shirley Pittz, M.S., is a private consultant with 40 years experience working with young children and their families. She is a thread Board Member and chair of thread’s Public Policy Committee.
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