An executive order by New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer last month granting family child-care providers the right to unionize is the latest sign of an aggressive push by organized labor to represent such workers, who care for small groups of children in the providers’ own homes.
Union representation has in recent years been authorized in seven other states, and efforts are under way to win that right in at least three other states. Unions already have signed contracts in Illinois, Oregon, and Washington.
In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers—an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers—already has filed cards signed by 12,000 providers with the State Employment Relations Board indicating they want the UFT to represent them. The board is expected to schedule an election for this summer.
Another 7,000 providers have applied to the board for representation by the Civil Service Employees Association of New York, which is part of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
“The unions began their work because they saw an industry that was underrespected,” said Suzanne Williamson, the president of the Salt Lake City-based National Association for Family Child Care, or NAFCC. She cites low pay and a lack of benefits as reasons why many providers quit the field, leaving parents to find other arrangements.
The Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, which is affiliated with the AFT, estimates the average annual earnings of family child-care providers— including those who work part time— to range from a low of $6,200 in New Mexico to a high of $16,300 in Washington state.
Union organizing potentially involves two types of providers: those who are licensed by the state, and those who are exempt from licensing because they care for fewer children than a state’s regulatory system requires. Such unregulated care also is known as family, friend, and neighbor care.
Unlike center-based providers, those who provide early education and care in their homes are self-employed and act as independent contractors for a state when accepting children whose care is subsidized by federal and state child-care money.
Subsidy payments to providers, or reimbursement rates, tend to fall below the amount a paying parent is charged. But Fran Streich, who has been organizing providers in New York City for the UFT, said that the idea of a “market rate” doesn’t reflect the true cost of care. Many providers, she said, already discount their services because they work in low-income neighborhoods.
“None of it is the kind of care we should be giving,” Ms. Streich argued, adding that many providers buy diapers and clothes for children out of their own pockets.
Melvina Vandross, who lives in New York’s Bronx borough, is a former social services auditor who has been running a family child-care center for 20 years.
“If I didn’t have grown, working sons, I would not be able to provide the care that I do for my [clients’] children,” she said. While Ms. Vandross gets reimbursed for the meals she prepares, she said, “you’re never going to get back what you spend.”
She said the organizing activity is also helping to bring providers together.
“No one ever thought there were as many providers as there are,” she said. “It’s an isolating job because you’re dealing with children all day.”
A report released earlier this year by the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, called “Getting Organized: Unionizing Home-Based Child-Care Providers,” said that because the movement is so new, “a full evaluation of what this strategy can accomplish” would be premature. But the report also said that the few contracts with providers that have already been signed have led to increases in reimbursement rates and more access to training opportunities.
Even if unionizing leads to higher payments for providers, however, many observers are asking whether it will also be a step toward higher-quality care.
At the least, the unionizing activity can “raise public awareness and educate parents and the public on what to look for in child care,” Ms. Williamson said.
But Debbie Moore, the director of public policy for the NAFCC—and a former family child-care provider—said the association would hope to see increases in subsidy payments tied to improvements in quality.
While most studies of child care have focused on center-based programs, a 1994 national study by the New York City-based Families and Work Institute, a research organization, showed that only 9 percent of care provided by relatives and family child-care providers was rated more than “adequate.”
Helen Blank, the director of leadership and public policy at women’s law center and one of the authors of its report, noted that under the union contract in Illinois, providers who meet certain training or quality requirements can receive higher reimbursement rates.
And under the agreement in Oregon, monitoring of providers by the state has increased, she said.
Ultimately, supporters say, unionizing can make family child-care homes more enriching places for young children before they enter preschool or kindergarten.
“Higher rates are important if providers are able to afford materials and books,” Ms. Blank said.
Union organizers have not been well received in every state, however.
In Maryland, where a very active state provider association already had been lobbying lawmakers for rate increases, many in-home providers bristled at the notion that they needed a union to represent them, Ms. Moore said.
In fact, last year and this year, members of the association even helped defeat legislation that would have allowed the Service Employees International Union to organize providers in Maryland. The SEIU already represents providers in Illinois, Oregon, and Washington state, and began organizing home-based providers after having success in unionizing home health-care workers.
Ms. Moore attributed the negative reaction in Maryland to “a failure to build relationships” on both the part of the union and the state association.
Last year, the NAFCC—the providers’ national association—drafted a position statement that lists several “best practices” for union organizing, and among them is a recommendation that unions first contact any state or local child-care associations. The document also recommends that unions spend time becoming familiar with the child-care and early-childhood field.
“It is our firm belief that a single, unified voice for family child-care providers is a necessity for effective advocacy for our profession at the state and national levels,” the NAFCC statement says.
While some unions are relatively new to focusing on those who work with young children, the 1.3 million-member AFT views such work as a logical extension of its existing early-childhood-education activities, said Leslie Getzinger, an AFT spokeswoman. Sandra Feldman, the late president of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, was a strong supporter of universal preschool.
“We see it as a natural fit,” Ms. Getzinger said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Unions Eyeing Family Child-Care Providers