Inside the child care crisis: Q&A with a veteran provider

January 19, 2023

The proposed childcare measures would ensure enough subsidized childcare slots for all low- and middle-income families who need it.

In her 20 years as a child care provider, Donise Keller has learned to take a lot in stride.

She often puts in 12-hour days. She scrapes by on less than $20,000 a year. But she does it because she loves working with the children in her care, who she fondly refers to as her babies. 

Keller works out of her Antioch home taking care of 12 to 14 children, ranging in age from 7 months to nine years.

The 54-year-old recently made time to chat about her perspective on the beleaguered state of childcare today and what the key issues are facing a workforce dominated by women of color often living on poverty wages

The median hourly pay for a California child care worker in 2019 was $13.43, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley.

Such meager wages explain why a third of all child care workers are on some kind of public assistance, a grim state of affairs only worsened by rising inflation.

Donise Keller

I bet you have a lot on your hands on an average day in child care.

“Well, we did have a little excitement with one of the little ones. She was saying ‘owie, owie’ and not moving her arm the right way. She had been wrestling with her big brother. They do it all the time at home so it’s hard for them to understand that they are not supposed to do it here but she’s 17-months-old and he’s 4. He’s a lot bigger than her. Anyway her shoulder popped out of its socket. It’s all OK now but when one of my babies gets hurt, it’s hard not to panic.”

Do you think they’ll stop wrestling now?

“I don’t know. She’s pretty fearless. She’s a tough little cookie.”

I know you always say that you don’t do this job for the money, but do you ever struggle to make ends meet?

“Yes, it is a struggle. One of my biggest struggles right now is I have two employees. And while I know that’s a huge blessing for me to have staff, and a lot of providers don’t, I have two people who are relying on me to be able to make their payroll. And there are times that I have to alternate the two ladies so that I’m not struggling to make payroll every other week. I can’t guarantee them their full 40 hours. I would like to give them more.

Given the high costs of operating a business, are there times when your employees make more than you do?

“Yes, I’m taking in the money but it’s like it’s a circle. You take it in, you give it back out, you take it in, you give it back out, you know? You keep just enough to maintain a roof over your head and food on the table.” 

How is rising inflation impacting you?

“Oh man, the cost of food and the cost of gas to pick up and drop off our students to school, it eats away at every single dime. That’s a big struggle, feeding them. You know, I have a lot of young boys and they are hungry.  Everything comes down to your bottom line and then your rates get raised for, say, utilities and the costs surround you.”

Do you think childcare providers will ever be paid a fair wage? 

“Childcare providers are the backbone of the economy in California. We showed our value during the pandemic. We are essential workers. They need us to step up and be there so that everyone else can function. I’m hopeful, but also doubtful, that we will ever be paid our worth.”

What do you wish more people understood about childcare?

“We’re educators and not just babysitters, we are teaching your child. I have a degree in child development. I’m in school getting my bachelor’s in early childhood education. I want parents to see that this is a great program, and I’ve put the time in to help educate our children.”

I bet it’s also very physically demanding, working with little ones.

 “I’m healthier than I’ve been in years, but yeah, it takes a toll on you. I’ve got back issues, from picking up the children. One little baby, she’s 30 pounds at 16 months. I’ve had knee surgery on both knees for a torn meniscus. My body cannot do what it used to. They come to you and they raise their arms, like, “pick me up, pick me up” and you just melt.”

After 20 years on the job, do you ever worry about being able to retire?

 “Yes, emphatically, yes. I should be retiring in less than 10 years. Most companies have retirement plans with some sort of employer match. I don’t have that luxury. We are considered contractors of the state, not employees. Our benefits don’t look like typical employees.”

A lot of childcare providers are leaving the industry for greener pastures. What keeps you so committed?

“It’s my passion. It’s honestly what I was meant to do. My first job at 14-years-old was working with children. So, I don’t see myself ever leaving this field although  the struggle is real.”

What has it meant to you to be part of the childcare workers union?

“I really consider myself so blessed to be a part of our union. I see the huge progress that we’ve made, making training available to people, getting health benefits and a retirement plan. The unions are fighting, fighting, fighting. And if we didn’t have a collective voice, then we would have no voice because they don’t listen to us individually.”

How do you persevere despite the challenges?

“We do what we have to do.  I just remember my mother, you know, teaching me as I was growing up, if you want something, go get it yourself. Don’t rely on anyone else to give it to you. That’s kind of how I operate. I just have to do it, rely on myself and make it happen. “

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