STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Wednesdays, we report on the workplace, which for many child care workers means home. The state of Illinois has negotiated a contract with the union that represents in-home child care workers. This is the first statewide collective bargaining agreement for family child care providers, and it may not be the last. Unions want to organize child care providers in more than a dozen states. Here's NPR's Sheilah Kast.
SHEILAH KAST reporting:
Cynthia Jones has cared for other people's children all her adult life, the last 15 years in her own home in East Baltimore. Last spring, she learned the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, was organizing home-based child care providers.
Ms. CYNTHIA JONES (Child Care Provider): Well, I think the idea of a union for someone like me, a child care provider, is great, because we need a strong voice, we need to be heard.
Then you have...
KAST: In her living room, Jones is balancing one-year-old Shelton on her lap with a music box, while she directs nine-year-old Glenn's after-school reading.
Ms. JONES: And what's the first thing you're going to do?
GLENN: Write my title.
Ms. JONES: Can you say your title one more time for me?
GLENN: Polar bear, polar bear, what do you hear?
KAST: The state of Maryland pays $541 a month for care for an infant, $306 for before- and after-school care for older children.
Ms. JONES: You want to play music with drums...
KAST: Is that reimbursement enough for you to cover your costs?
Ms. JONES: Oh, no. We need more money to be able to afford quality child care. That's just the minimum.
KAST: Across the country, most kids who are in day care are not in centers, but in homes. The people caring for them are not employees, but independent businesspeople whose take-home profit is often about equal to the minimum wage, given their long hours. Tom Copeland runs the Redleaf Institute, which advises family child care providers on business problems.
Mr. TOM COPELAND (Redleaf Institute): This is the most important time for children and learning, and yet, we provide the least public support, and we place the burden on the parent and on the child care provider.
KAST: Low wages, long hours, few benefits, a work force ripe to be unionized, and unions are eager. With union membership plummeting, especially in private companies, public sector unions are looking for ways to connect to more jobs, especially work like child care that cannot be sent overseas. Two big unions are organizing home-based providers in 15 states, but the movement is slow.
Ms. MARIE MONRAD (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees): You can't just go into a shop floor, a hospital and sign up three, four, 500 of them all at once.
KAST: Marie Monrad is associate director for organizing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME.
Ms. MONRAD: You've got to go door to door to door to door. They're individual conversations, so it requires a lot of resources.
KAST: Last month, 3,600 providers in Washington state voted to join SEIU. Last spring, 49,000 providers in Illinois voted to join the union, and yesterday SEIU and Illinois announced a contract that will raise what the state pays for child care by 35 percent over three years. Martina Casey(ph) said she'll spend the extra money on equipment for the kids she cares for in her home on Chicago's South Side.
Ms. MARTINA CASEY (Child Care Provider): I'm going to get some backyard equipment, some books that I want to purchase that I saw through a catalog and some other little programs, especially the literacy.
KAST: Under the new contract, Illinois will also pay incentives to providers to take training to improve the quality of in-home child care, and the state and union will work out a health insurance plan for providers. In Illinois, the governor issued an order allowing SEIU to bargain, but even without that approval in other states, unions can use their political clout to lobby against budget cuts or for licensing changes.
Ms. ANNA ROMAN(ph) (AFSCME): Antoinette?
Ms. ANTOINETTE BROWN(ph) (Child Care Provider): Yes.
Ms. ROMAN: Hi. My name is Anna.
Ms. BROWN: Good morning.
Ms. ROMAN: Good morning.
KAST: When provider Antoinette Brown opens her door in northeast Philadelphia, Anna Roman invites her to be part of a lobbying effort. Roman is an organizer for AFSCME.
Ms. ROMAN: And we will really love for providers to go down to Washington or Harrisburg. We want them to get it firsthand from the providers, right?
Ms. BROWN: Mm, they need to hear us.
Ms. ROMAN: Right?
Ms. BROWN: They need to hear it.
KAST: The union trend is too new to quantify its effect on the cost of home-based child care. Several economists said if it catches on, it could raise charges to families that are not subsidized, as well as to states that pay subsidies. But many families say their budgets already are stretched to the limit. Observers of the union's organizing effort say its ultimate impact may be to raise pressure for taxpayers to cover more of the cost of caring for kids. For NPR News, I'm Sheilah Kast.
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