Family Child Care Providers Struggle with Low Pay, Hurdles to Career Advancement

Providence resident Estefany Ortiz opened her family child care after giving birth to her son in 2016. She had been working in a department store, and starting a child care business was one of the only ways she could afford high quality care for her son. Although she loves the early childhood classroom she’s created in her home and currently has a large waitlist of families, the road hasn’t been easy. Today she runs her program with the help of a teaching assistant and an assistant-in-training, while she attends Rhode Island College, where she’s earning her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education through a state-sponsored T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood scholarship.

“I’m actually losing income to complete school even though I have a scholarship, since I need to pay teachers to fill in for me at my program while I’m in classes. It’s extremely difficult to run my business and take classes at the same time,” she said. “Many child care providers are never able to finish their degrees because they think they won’t make back the time and money they’d invest into school. You wonder–is it worth the sacrifices to earn this degree that isn’t even required?”

Estefany’s program was recently closed for a week because of a COVID exposure. Since many of her families pay out of pocket for full tuition and needed their money to pay for an alternate child care option that week, she was not able to charge them for tuition while her program was closed. “I need to be flexible for my parents who are unable to work and losing wages when their children stay home,” said Estefany. “However, I couldn’t survive a month without being paid. If we had to quarantine for four weeks, I would be forced to close my doors for good.”

The pandemic heightened these unsustainable payment practices, and Estefany feels family child care providers have been left to fend for themselves. She says that in order to provide the high quality learning environments working parents depend on, family child care providers need support to further their professional development and education, and higher pay to make it possible and worthwhile. She believes that one of the biggest hurdles to better wages for family child care providers is the misconception that they’re just babysitters. 

“I’m constantly correcting parents who come to me looking for a babysitter. Because my classroom is within my home, parents see it as lower quality than a child care center, and feel that it should cost significantly less,” said Estefany. “But the reality is that I’m offering a high quality learning environment that is intimate, personalized, and culturally relevant. I get to know all these kids personally, I’m tracking their development, and I’m coming up with personalized lessons and activities for each of them based on their interests. There isn’t the capacity to do that in all child care centers.”

Estefany is concerned that families don’t recognize that investing in high quality early childhood learning pays off in the long run, and often seek out child care options based solely on affordability and convenience. “Parents must understand how important it is to learn school readiness skills, like waiting for your turn, socializing with peers, or holding scissors. Building these important skills at the right time will help build success in school and in life,” she said. “If a child doesn’t gain these skills at a young age, they’ll have to work that much harder to catch up, and elementary school teachers likely won’t have the time or capacity to get them up to speed. About 40 percent of kids in Providence perform below grade level when they start school because they haven’t had a high quality early learning experience.”  

Estefany stresses that legislators and statewide leaders must prioritize making a variety of high quality childhood education options accessible for all families, by assuring child care workers are paid adequate, consistent wages so they can offer a high quality learning environment. She knows that in the long run, investments in early childhood pay off, because children who have high quality early learning experiences have a huge advantage over their peers throughout their k-12 education.