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Child-Care Workers Fired After Protest Over Wages

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In what appears to be the first action of its kind in this country, a dozen employees of Kindercare in Raleigh, N.C., were without jobs last week after protesting low wages. Kindercare is the nation's largest for-profit child-care chain.

As policy analysts and researchers highlight the importance of early intervention in boosting children's school readiness, child advocates have been sounding increasing alarm over the low pay and poor working conditions common among child-care workers.

Canadian child-care workers have staged strikes over the issue, but such actions in the United States have been largely limited to temporary closings to flag the issue symbolically and have not resulted in workers losing their jobs.

While not overtly advocating such tactics, the National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce encourages groups to plan rallies and forums each April on "Worthy Wage Day.'' (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993.)

But child-care experts say the Raleigh incident is significant because it was not linked to any national or widely organized effort.

On Dec. 1, 13 employees of a Kindercare center there submitted a letter to administrators threatening not to come to work the next day if they did not get a 20-cents-an-hour raise.

The workers, who were earning from about $4.25 to $5.46 an hour, said they had been promised the increase by a center director who subsequently resigned. In their most recent paychecks, the workers said they were dismayed to find that most salaries were increased by no more than 10 cents an hour and that some raises were as low as 1 cent per hour.

When their demands were not met, most members of the group did not to return to work. The group also wrote to parents apologizing for any inconvenience and seeking their support.

Misunderstandings Cited

The letter also complained about the lack of incentives, unclean facilities, few substitutes to allow for time off, and "a poor working environment.''

"We, as teachers, are supposed to take care of children,'' the letter stated. "This job holds a great responsibility and deserves some respect and acknowledgment.''

Janice Tronick, Kindercare's regional manager for the Middle Atlantic states, conceded that "errors'' might have been made in some workers' raises. But she said the company's staff-review and tenure policies would not have warranted a 20-cents-an-hour raise for all employees at that time.

She also said administrators tried to reassure workers that they would investigate their concerns and try to help resolve them if the employees came to work.

"Much to our dismay, many chose not to return to work,'' she said. "As far as we're concerned, they terminated their own employment.''

But Ms. Tronick stressed that the center has stayed open, drawing on the few staff members who did not join the protest, substitutes, and personnel from other Kindercare centers.

Kim Rhodes, a parent with two children at the center, said she has been concerned about her infant having to adjust to so many unfamiliar faces and about the qualifications of the substitutes.

While voicing sympathy with both sides and attributing the incident to "a lot of misunderstandings,'' she said child-care workers "do need to get paid more.''

Some parents and teachers also have complained that, while tuition has increased and the center recently bought several computers and an alarm system, little progress has been made in raising wages.

Ms. Tronick said, however, that the purchases were not made at the expense of raises.

Jacquie Ababio, a worker who signed the letter but opted to continue working at the center after negotiating a 10-cents-an-hour raise, said that since her car broke down three months ago, she has had to rely on rides or miss work while saving for repairs.

She and her baby could not survive on her salary, Ms. Ababio said, if they did not live with relatives. She also said she felt "obligated to stay'' at the center because she "felt bad for parents.''

North Carolina Legislation

While most of the workers who did not return to work say they have little hope of winning back their jobs or higher pay, they believe their actions were warranted.

"I know we're not going to get the money, but this is bigger than that,'' Renne Sutton said.

The North Carolina legislature recently adopted a measure backed by Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. to fund and coordinate an array of early-childhood services, including investments in teacher training and compensation. (See Education Week, July 14, 1993.)

But the Kindercare incident shows such efforts do not "affect or touch everybody yet,'' said Marcy Whitebook, the executive director of the National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce.

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