OLYMPIA – With state child care subsidies well below the actual cost of caring for enrolled kids, some Spokane-area workers and lawmakers say it’s time to give the industry more clout.
How? By unionizing the child care workers and letting them collectively bargain with Olympia for higher rates, paid training and other improvements.
“In this environment, you have to be able to provide some leverage for us to act on a priority,” said state Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. He said the normal state budget process, which is essentially a tug of war among lawmakers and interest groups, has let child care rates lag well behind costs.
“We’ve let that model work for a long time,” Marr said. “The fact is that it doesn’t work.”
“It’s basically to give us a voice,” said Marci McLaughlin, owner of a Spokane Valley child care center.
The union structure would be unusual, McLaughlin said, with both workers and child care owners teaming up to bargain with the state. Under the plan, the state would deduct a yet-to-be-determined “representation fee” from payments to child care centers and pay it directly to the union.
Other lawmakers and child care centers say the simplest fix is just to increase the rates.
“If we really want to get money to child care centers, let’s get it to them,” says state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond. He’s backing a bill, SB 5506, that would boost rates to 75 percent of actual cost.
That simpler plan “bypasses a very expensive and unnecessary middleman,” said Tom Emery, a Puyallup child care center owner. He’s the spokesman for the Washington Child Care Alliance, which includes dozens of centers opposed to the collective bargaining plan.
Lawmakers debated the collective bargaining plan last year, but the bill died in the Senate. The new version would exempt religious child care centers and those with fewer than four state-subsidized kids. It would also exempt centers run by large chains, government agencies or tribes.
Some lawmakers remain unhappy with the proposal.
“It still has employers cover the workers’ union dues, still has directors and workers in the same bargaining unit, and it still sounds a lot like a path toward mandatory unionization,” said state Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake.
This year, the odds for the plan look better.
Marr’s Senate Bill 5572 is co-sponsored by 18 other senators, including five Republicans. A similar House version has more than 30 backers, including local Reps. Timm Ormsby and Alex Wood, both D-Spokane. House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown both seem supportive.
“I think it’s looking pretty good” to pass this year, Brown said.
Also backing the plan: teachers unions and the Service Employees International Union, which has organized other low-paid workers that rely on state funding. In recent years, state lawmakers have granted collective bargaining rights to home health care workers, adult family homes and family child care providers.
Marr argues that child care is too important to be left to the whims of state budget writers every other year. Instead of just being a place to “warehouse” kids, he said, child care is a valuable change to develop young children’s minds. But doing that, he said, takes a steady, well-trained work force.
One thing that both sides agree on: Things must change.
Emery, for example, said that the state pays less than $11 a day for before- and after-school care for kids.
“That covers about half of what it costs us to staff for that,” including vans to take the kids to and from school, he said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
In Spokane, child care centers are paid far less than 75 percent of actual cost.
The state pays $28.53 a day to care for an infant, for example. At 75 percent of actual cost – which is still a loss for every child accepted to a center – that rate would rise to $33.08, according to the state’s Children’s Administration. The gap is similar for toddlers, preschoolers and school-age kids.
“If things stay the way that they are, you may run into a lot of centers going out of business,” said Leanna Law, who owns a child care center in Nine Mile Falls. With 45 percent of her kids state-subsidized, she said, she can’t afford to hire staff with education degrees or pay for them to get more training. She supports collective bargaining, saying it would give the centers and their workers badly needed clout with legislative budget writers.
Emery says the state dollars that would pay the union representation fee would be better spent directly on child care rates. He also argues that the plan may backfire. He thinks it will make centers more leery of accepting state-paid kids because they won’t want to be included in the collective bargaining.
“Even if it’s well-intended, one more mandate on them is going to cause more fear and more red tape,” he said, and make it harder to find spots for those kids.