Crystal Rogers, owner of Cozy Couch Family Day Care in Martinsburg, W.Va., finally feels appreciated. It took the pandemic to make that happen.
For too long, she says, society has looked down on day care — as somehow less worthy than school. And no wonder. Child care is one of the lowest paid occupations in America.
"We're not baby sitters ... I've been wanting to say that," Rogers says. "We go to trainings. We do all the things that a professional child care provider does."
Child care workers, almost all women, teach, feed and care for children from infancy up until they're ready to go to school while their parents are at work. It's hard work, Rogers says, and also essential.
Now, child care is being held up as critical to the economic recovery. Since last year, Congress has delivered $50 billion of relief funds for the industry, a historic sum.
And President Biden wants that level of investment to continue. As part of his American Families Plan, he has asked Congress for $225 billion over 10 years to make child care affordable or even free for working parents. He wants to raise wages for those who work in the industry to at least $15 an hour.
The Democrats have answered with a budget framework that includes $726 billion for priorities targeting education and families, including universal pre-K and child care.
Many families at this day care center haven't had to pay anything for child care during the pandemic
To Rogers, it's already clear what a difference a big investment like that would make. In a way, it's already happening in West Virginia, thanks to the federal relief funds.
She charges $150 per week for babies up to 2 years old and $125 per week for children 2 to 12 years old.
But most of the families whose children go to her Cozy Couch Family Day Care haven't had to pay anything during the pandemic. That's because West Virginia has been covering the full cost of child care for essential workers since March 2020. The parents who use this day care include nurses and grocery workers.
The state has always subsidized child care to some degree. And some of the parents here qualified for subsidies even before the pandemic, based on their income. But the state is now paying Rogers more per child than it has ever paid in the past — a pandemic premium that is set to continue through the end of 2022.
"They kept us afloat," Rogers says. "They did us well, and they're still doing us well."
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Rogers has also received several grants from the state, in part for staying open. She has used the extra money to purchase more things for the children, such as books, puzzles and blocks, and to give bonuses to her staff.
But she knows the infusion of cash is temporary. And that worries her.
"When it goes back to normal, whatever normal is, a lot of us are going to take a hit," she says.
Worker shortages signal that wages are still too low
The uncertainties about future funding are keeping a lot of day care centers from significantly raising wages, which would help them find workers.
A recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 4 out of 5 child care centers were struggling with staffing shortages.
The group's CEO, Rhian Evans Allvin, says imagine you're a day care teacher where "I'm doing high impact, high intensity work for less money than I could go make milkshakes at Burger King."
"It's not rocket science to figure out why we can't get the workforce back," she says.
Latoya Beatty, owner of Little Pandas Learn-N-Play in Martinsburg, has had a difficult time hiring all summer, and she blames all of the stimulus money in the federal government's pandemic rescue plans.
"I just feel like staffing has been more challenging because people are getting so much money from the government," she says.
She has set up interviews only to be stood up. She has hired people who then quit a week or two later. She raised the starting pay from $10 an hour to $12 in hopes of attracting talent. That brought in a few more applications, but it hasn't completely solved her staffing problems.
With lots of employers — from CVS and Chipotle to Amazon — all raising their wages, she faces a lot of competition for workers. So she wants to raise wages to $15 an hour, but right now that's a stretch for her business.
Back at Cozy Couch, Rogers also worries about competition for workers, but she has mostly family members on staff, including her own mother.
"Obviously I don't see her turning her back on me," she says with a laugh. "She's going to stay with me."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here are some truths about child care - it's backbreaking work, it's poorly paid, and it's essential to our economy. In the pandemic, the U.S. government stepped in to rescue the child care industry with relief funds topping $50 billion. Now President Biden and Democrats want long-term funding increases to bring change to an industry that needs it. NPR's Andrea Hsu went to West Virginia to see what more money could achieve.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's free-play time at Cozy Couch Family Day Care in Martinsburg, W.Va.
HSU: The kids are up from their naps - well, all but two.
CRYSTAL ROGERS: Want to wake up? Wake up.
HSU: Crystal Rogers owns this day care. It's actually her second location. She started the first in her home 13 years ago.
ROGERS: The demand for child care is ridiculous. And I'm actually in the process of trying to open a third facility.
HSU: There are 12 little ones enrolled here, the most she's allowed to have in this kind of day care. Almost all are children of essential workers - nurses, grocery workers and HVAC dispatcher. President Biden will point to people like them when making his case for child care. He's asking Congress for a gigantic increase in funding - $225 billion over 10 years - to make child care affordable, or even free, and to raise wages for child care workers to at least $15 an hour.
HSU: To Crystal Rogers, it's already clear what a difference all that extra money would make because, in a way, it's already happening here in West Virginia.
ROGERS: Bye, guys.
HSU: Most of the families here haven't had to pay anything for child care in the pandemic. West Virginia has used its share of federal relief funds to pay the full cost of child care for essential workers. Now, the state has always subsidized child care to some degree, but now more than ever.
ROGERS: They kept us afloat. They did us well. And they're still doing us well.
HSU: Rogers has put the extra money back into her day cares.
ROGERS: We were able to buy more things for the children, more learning tools.
HSU: And she's given her staff bonuses, which is a big deal when your starting wage is $11 an hour. She sees the extra money as recognition of the important role they play, raising up children from infancy until they're ready to go to school.
ROGERS: This is a very important time for child development. It makes us feel a little bit more appreciated.
HSU: Now, Rogers knows the infusion of cash is temporary. She's already bracing for what it'll feel like if it all ends.
ROGERS: When it goes back to normal, whatever normal is, a lot of us are going to take a hit.
HSU: And that uncertainty about future funding is keeping a lot of day care centers from significantly raising wages and finding workers. Rhian Allvin leads the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She says, think about what it's like to be a day care teacher.
RHIAN ALLVIN: I'm doing this high-impact, high-intensity work for less money than I could go make milkshakes at Burger King. Like, it's not rocket science to figure out why we can't get the workforce back.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAY CARE AMBIENCE)
HSU: At Little Pandas Learn-N-Play, also in Martinsburg, the lights are off, half-a-dozen toddlers are on their mats fighting sleep.
LATOYA BEATTY: Curious (laughter). Who was that?
HSU: Latoya Beatty is the owner of this day care. It's a much larger child care center. It can accommodate 70 kids in two buildings. She also wants to expand, but she doesn't even have enough teachers to fully staff this center. She's been trying to hire all summer, and it's been frustrating.
BEATTY: I just feel like staffing has been more challenging because people are getting so much money from the government stimulus and all that, so they don't go to work (laughter).
HSU: She's set up interviews only to be stood up. She's hired people who then quit a week or two later. She was having such a hard time she raised the starting pay from $10 an hour to $12. That brought in a few more people.
BEATTY: It's not a massive amount of applicants. But I am getting some, so that's a good thing.
HSU: She'd like to be able to pay $15 an hour to match what employers all around have announced they're moving to - CVS, Amazon, Chipotle. But right now it's a stretch.
HSU: Back at Cozy Couch, Crystal Rogers also worries about competition for workers, but she has mostly family members on staff, including her own mom.
ROGERS: Obviously, I don't see her, you know, turning her back on me. She going to stay with me (laughter).
HSU: Pandemic bonus or not, she will continue the essential work that keeps our country humming.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.