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The BC Experiment That Could Transform Child-Care Work

The government is testing a new, higher salary grid to attract and retain workers.

Zak Vescera 11 Dec 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

In 2021, the federal government promised $30 billion over five years to create tens of thousands of child-care spaces while dramatically reducing fees for parents, with about $3.2 billion set for B.C.

But child-care workers and advocates say there’s a big problem. There aren’t nearly enough child-care workers to reach that goal.

The Tyee has learned the B.C. government is responding with a pilot program that will establish and fund higher pay rates at 53 child-care centres across the province beginning this month. The initiative could transform working conditions in the sector.

Operators say there is “brutal” competition for early childhood educators, or ECEs. Some child-care centres can’t operate at full capacity because of staff shortages, worsening the years-long waits many parents already face.

Operators interviewed for this article said they are losing workers almost as fast as they hire them. Burnout and retention are a growing problem, along with low wages that push some child-care workers to leave the sector.

The B.C. government has tried to patch the gap by providing funding for three pay bumps for eligible child-care workers since 2018, which add up to $6 an hour. It says that after the next increase Jan. 1, the median pay will be $28 per hour.

But proponents of affordable child care say the province needs a wage grid that would establish far higher base salaries for early childhood educators across the province. Some provinces, including Manitoba and Newfoundland, have already introduced such systems.

The B.C. government has quietly begun testing such a program.

Starting this month, the government will be funding a wage grid at 53 child-care programs in what it describes as a “pilot” that may soon expand. There are more than 2,000 child-care centres in B.C.

Grace Lore, the minister in charge of child care, said the government is holding off on wider application because it wants to “get it right.”

“We want to make sure we have the right wage grid and the right funding models for all providers,” Lore said. "Wages and compensation are a huge part of that. So is funding providers to sufficient levels to support other levels of care.”

Emily Mlieczko, executive director of Early Childhood Educators of BC, said she appreciates the province’s pilot test.

“At the same time, we can barely hold on,” Mlieczko said. She said the sector faces a “critical” recruitment and retention challenge and needs quick relief.

“From my perspective, we should be moving much faster with doing this,” Mlieczko said.

A changing field

In 2010, a group of child-care advocates met around a kitchen table in East Vancouver and cooked up an idea that would change the country.

Sharon Gregson, the provincial spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, said they were frustrated by cuts to funding under the BC Liberal government and the barriers this created for parents and kids seeking child care.

They, along with the Early Childhood Educators of BC and the Human Early Learning Partnership, decided to research what it would take to set the price of child care at $10 a day.

In 2017, the BC NDP pledged to introduce $10-a-day child care in its successful election campaign. In 2021, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals made it a national policy goal.

That year, the federal government rolled out $30 billion in national child-care spending with a goal of lowering the average fees to $10 a day by the 2025-26 fiscal year for kids up to five years of age. The federal government spent $349 million in B.C. alone in the first year of that program. They also set a goal of creating 30,000 new licensed child-care spaces in the province by March 2026, a roughly 24 per cent increase to the roughly 126,000 spaces that existed in the fiscal year the agreement was signed.

Now, the hurdle is not government investment. Instead, it’s cultivating and training a workforce that advocates say has long been underpaid, underappreciated and overworked.

“You want to meet the demand. There’s lots of challenges in doing that, but one of the challenges is having enough staff to run those spaces,” said Alison Merton.

Merton directs programs at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House in East Vancouver, one of the city’s largest child-care centres. It offers 13 different programs, employs about 80 staff and serves hundreds of children, from infants and toddlers to school-aged kids.

The federal and provincial plan is the kind of bold move advocates like Merton have spent years fighting for. Vancouver, by the city’s own estimates, has a shortfall of 15,000 licensed child-care spaces. Wait-lists can be years long, particularly for infants and toddlers.

Meanwhile, Merton said, child-care operators are facing their own struggles to find staff.

In 2018, the provincial government estimated there were 11,000 ECEs across the province. It believes that has grown to 16,000, thanks in part to new cash incentives and government-funded seats for ECEs at post-secondary institutions.

But the government says it needs 2,600 more ECEs by 2025-26 to meet its goals.

And Merton said operators are sometimes losing staff faster than they can hire them, largely because wages still lag far behind the difficulty and value of the job.

In 2022, a workforce survey found 44 per cent of child-care facilities in the Vancouver Coastal Health service area reported a net loss of staff in 2021. That was up 13 points from 2019.

Andrea Duncan, a vice-president with the BC General Employees' Union, said the competition to hire ECEs is “beyond brutal.”

“The competition is incredibly fierce,” said Duncan, who herself has been an ECE for more than two decades. “I know that there’s lots of overtime. There’s difficulty to take vacation. It’s just non-existent, and it’s been that way for quite a while.”

Mlieczko said the biggest problem is not recruitment and training, but keeping child-care workers inside the sector.

Many ECEs, she said, leave child care to seek jobs in the K-12 public education system, which offers unionized wages and better benefits.

In comparison, the BCGEU’s Duncan said base wages within child care have varied widely in the past, from minimum wage to $30 an hour. Workers typically require at least a year of post-secondary education.

“You should never have an ECE, with the level of education that is required, making minimum wage,” Duncan said.

Today, virtually none are. The British Columbia government offered child-care centres funding to increase wages for eligible ECE workers by $4 an hour in 2018. This month, it announced another increase of $2 on top of that.

Nearly 13,000 ECEs claimed that top-up in 2023, which is estimated to cost the government $195 million a year and raise the median wage to $28.

But not every ECE is getting that money. Cecilia Garcia, a Collingwood Neighbourhood House ECE, works part of her time at a program funded by the federal government to care for the children of new Canadian residents. Because of that funding overlap, Garcia said, she and other workers don’t receive the top-up. And other types of workers who are not ECEs are ineligible.

Garcia has worked in child care for two decades and said there’s nothing else she’d rather do. She takes immense pride in her work, which helps children new to Canada learn a new language and make vital social connections. “When you walk in here, you’re walking in with your imagination,” said Garcia. “You’re walking in with creativity. You’re walking in to make new friends.”

But Garcia said pay is a constant challenge. She and other ECEs, she said, were elated when new government funding was announced. But she said the incentives offered to date aren’t commensurate with the education the job requires, or the difficulty of the work.

“We are not recognized as teachers,” said Garcia. “We are recognized as babysitters.”

And even when ECEs are eligible, advocates like Merton and Mlieczko say, $28 is still below the salary needed to attract and keep workers. Child-care advocates have argued an appropriate wage range lies between $30 and $40 an hour, a salary fairly few workers make today.

“There’s that need for staff to find a higher-paying job. They live in Vancouver. The cost of living is ridiculously high… sometimes we can’t compare, even with a wage top up,” Merton said.

The problem of low wages in child care isn’t new. Duncan, whose union represents roughly 1,500 ECEs, said the job was historically considered “women’s work” and underpaid.

“I don’t think they ever thought they could make a living off it,” said Merton. “This is hard, hard work.... It’s really emotionally draining, physically challenging — this has to be a choice.”

But Merton said the COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point for the sector. Many ECEs worked through the first months of the crisis, risking infection so parents could make it to their own jobs.

Merton said many took pride in that work. But it was also exhausting and risky. Some workers went on stress leave and never returned. Those who stayed found children who had stayed at home during the pandemic returning to child care with more complicated needs, which meant more work.

“I think personally there is a shortage of support with challenging behaviours for children. We don’t get the extra support, the one on one, so your ratio [of staff to children] changes,” said Garcia. She said she had seen many new workers in the sector either shift to administrative work or, in some cases, leave altogether.

“I really feel for these child-care workers, because they get burned out,” Garcia said.

For years, Gregson said, many child-care operators — whether they were non-profit, for profit or run by Indigenous agencies — paid staff mostly through fees charged to parents. Higher pay meant higher fees.

“The issue of wages for early childhood educators has always, until now, been tied to the fees that parents will pay because there was not meaningful government support,” Gregson said.

Eric Swanson, a consultant working for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, said that has partly changed, but now the sector is stuck in a “messy middle.”

Fees are falling, thanks to expanded government funding and mandated targets. But Swanson said the cash coming in can’t keep pace with the actual salaries needed to retain workers, who are often leaving for different jobs.

“We’re still stuck in a transition state between the old, failed market-based system and the new public system,” Swanson said.

Getting to a grid

Lore, the minister in charge of the file, doesn’t deny the scale of the problem. She said the government was adopting an “all hands on deck” approach to preparing the ECE workforce to meet the government’s goals and the growth of B.C.’s population.

“ECE recruitment and education and training and retention is absolutely critical to all the work we’re doing on child care in B.C.,” Lore said. “We talk about child-care spaces, but there really is no such thing. We are talking about the educators who care and are providing that early learning opportunity.”

She believes child-care workers have long been underpaid and underappreciated and said the government is trying to “make up for lost time” on wages and benefits.

Advocates argue the best way to do that is through a wage grid — a sector-wide scale that would tie pay and other benefits to a worker’s experience and qualifications, similar to a union contract.

Merton argues such a grid would ensure a fair pay scale and would allow workers to pick an employer based on whether their personal values and goals aligned, instead of whether they could outbid the competition.

“We’re not going to get there until we have the compensation plan in place, because we’re simply not attracting people into the industry,” Duncan said.

Some other provinces have already adopted such programs since striking their own deals with the federal government on child-care funding. Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, sets the starting annual salary for an ECE at $21.25 an hour; ECEs with the maximum amount of experience and training can make as much as $35.09.

British Columbia has not publicly adopted such a model, but the newly launched pilot program is offering a test.

The government’s plan to roll out a new funding model for 53 child-care operators across the province, including a wage grid, is a “pilot” of how such a model may work, Lore said.

She said the operators are a mix of non-profit, for-profit and Indigenous-owned child-care providers who collectively care for 2,500 children. The pilot is set to begin for some operators this month.

Her ministry did not say what the associated wages would be for those pilot participants. But the overall cost of the pilot program is estimated at $42.3 million per year. In a written statement, a ministry spokesperson described it as “the future of child-care funding in this province” and said they “are planning to begin wider-scale implementation in 2025.”

“We want to make sure that people can see a lifelong career doing this work,” Lore said.

Gregson and other operators said they are pleased government is exploring a new public funding model.

But she argues the government could and should move faster.

“We would have expected and hoped there would have been a bolder rollout, because there’s such a crisis,” Gregson said.

Lore said the pilot is needed because the government needs to test out the appropriate wage grids and other forms of financial support among operators with different funding models.

“We want to make sure that operators and providers are able to compensate their educators, that they’re able to deliver quality and inclusive care,” she said.

Gregson pointed out that the B.C. government began offering $10-a-day child-care sites in 2018 at 53 locations it referred to as “prototypes.” She argues the government should know enough from that to test a new funding model much more widely.

“We had hoped we’d be moving a little bit more boldly five or six years later,” she said.

Garcia said government officials needed to see first-hand the difference that child-care services make for families — and the loss when they don’t have them.

“I think the government needs to really understand what they’re preaching,” Garcia said.  [Tyee]

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