Child care workers experiencing relief from COVID-19 funds are worried about Michigan's fiscal cliff

Financial independence. That's what early childhood educator Carla Wasson is experiencing for the first time. A mother of three grown sons, the lead preschool teacher, has spent most of her life employed at minimum wage. As a single parent for 22 years, she raised a family while she worked, often needing a little help to meet their household needs. 

"I always struggled," she says. "It was extremely hard."

Today, Wasson and her husband of seven years grandparent nine children, and she works at Village of Shiny Stars Child Care Center (VOSS) in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood. Wasson says her finances have improved over the last few years, and with the recent pay raise she gained due to the center's COVID-19 relief funding, she can afford things now that she couldn't before.

"I'm able to provide for my kids and my grandkids without feeling that pinch. You know what I mean?" she says. "And it feels good. It's financial independence to me."

Carla Wasson
Wasson is a lead teacher in a young toddler classroom, ages 2 to 3. Over six years ago, she left her job as a phlebotomist to pursue early education and child care. She enjoys the safety and meaningful connections she finds working with children who are open, innocent, and excited to learn, even when they don't realize they're learning.

In her classroom, Wasson teaches her young students to recognize and name their emotions, offering them calm ways to express themselves when they feel sad or upset. She helps them learn to care for themselves, follow directions, be independent, work in a team, and recognize themselves in others.

She calls it "scratch work," building from the bottom up. 

"I love to see them go from one stage to another, helping them reach their milestones," she says. "We're teaching them skills they'll have throughout their whole life. They won't forget the things instilled in them at a young age."

Wasson began working with students at VOSS in 2018 for the state's minimum wage of $9.25. Right away, founder and director Sonya Hickey encouraged her to take classes to obtain her CDA (Child Development Associate) credential free through the center's partnership with Matrix Early Head Start and the T.E.A.C.H. program. This qualified her to lead a classroom and to receive an hourly wage of over $12. Now, in her second renewal, she continues professional training to keep her 3-year certification current. She plans to acquire her Associate's Degree in Early Childhood Development and, ultimately, pursue a Bachelor's Degree in the field.

Carla Wasson works with her students.
"Our facility is an educational facility for early learners," says Hickey. "These are classrooms. We have a curriculum, and our teachers are doing lesson plans." Yet, too often, child care centers like VOSS are viewed as simply daycare, she says, and teachers like Wasson as babysitters. 

"Even though I have the GSRP (Great Start to Readiness) program, which is in public schools as well," Hickey says, talking about the state's free preschool program for 4-year-olds, "there's still a disconnect. My teachers are not getting paid the same amount of money as a person in Detroit Public Schools, and that's because [DPSCD] has more GSRP programs and more students. It's a different infrastructure." 

With her center fully staffed amid COVID-19, Hickey knows she's not the norm. It's the case at maybe one out of 10 local private child care businesses, she says. But holding onto her employees and continuing to make operational ends meet is a balance that worries her. 

"Just because my staff is still here doesn't mean I'm not struggling," she says. "I make sure they're paid before me because they keep my business going. Our expenses definitely outweigh what's coming in," she says. "But it's been like this for so long."

Retention Matters

Ninety percent of the students Hickey serves at her Brightmoor facility qualify for Michigan's child care subsidy. The subsidy helps families in poverty pay for private child care and is the state's most significant initiative in the industry.

In the fall of 2021, the Department of Education appropriated a historic $1.4 billion to bolster child care in Michigan, ravaged by the pandemic. Gov. Whitmer has used COVID-19 relief funds to provide $700 million in stabilization grants for the industry, temporarily increase provider subsidy rates and family income eligibility, suspend family co-pays, and allow providers to bill based on student enrollment rather than attendance. 

"We were trying to fight that long before the pandemic even happened," Hickey says about billing based on enrollment. "It just makes sense. You have to hire teachers and account for when the kids are not here."

Sonya Hickey
She says the center's three stabilization grants have also been a lifeline, not complicated by excessive stipulations. They've provided staff hazard pay, and bonuses, professional development, mental health support, and an early education curriculum upgrade. When the center was closed at the height of COVID-19, these funds helped Hickey pay her mortgage, utilities, and insurance. She's also made aesthetic improvements: freshening the office, staff lounge, and bathrooms; purchasing new laundry appliances; a Zono cabinet for disinfecting toys; and new flooring.

For Hickey, it's essential that her employees feel appreciated. They do so much, she says, and she cannot pay them what she would like. But each month, she prepares something special to acknowledge her team: ice cream floats, an evening out to dinner, a spa gift, movie tickets, a health basket, and for the upcoming holidays, a grocery store gift card. In her forthcoming book, "Retention Matters," Hickey shares insight with fellow providers about the importance of staff recognition in creating a thriving center and gives tips and ideas on affordable ways to do this. 

The lounge area Hickey recently renovated for her staff feels now like a conference room to Wasson. It boasts new computers and electronics, modern furniture, a small coffee and kitchen area, and fresh paint. A place for staff creativity, collaboration, celebration, and relaxation. "It makes you feel more professional, and the bright colors make you happy," she says.

Village of Shiny Stars used a stabilization grant to renovate the staff lounge.
She smiles through tears as she shares her boss's most recent recognition of her work. At this moment, she sees herself as Hickey does, a dedicated teacher who has continually shown up to help children learn and families thrive through the pandemic.

"It was almost a $3 raise," she says. "It was amazing; I didn't expect it. I know a lot of people think about the pay first, but I think about the pay last because when you're in a safe place, and you feel like your boss is doing what she can to ensure your safety, to make sure that your work environment is inviting and comfortable, it's worth the sacrifice. But to be rewarded on that level, I never had this much money before," she says. "I feel safe here; I feel happy here. I feel inspired to keep coming."

Wasson and her husband sat down to figure out how this money would help their family, mainly with the high prices of things like groceries, gas, and rent. It's incredible how the dollars add up to equal a big difference, she says, one that means hard work and loyalty pay off. 

"Even before the raise, I gave my all to the center. Providing a safe place for the children, where their parents don't have to worry, where they're learning, playing, and learning from each other, it's awesome," she says. "We're helping the community to keep going."

With the temporary increases from the state, Hickey's had the extra help she needed to attract and retain staff amid COVID-19, economic inflation, and the competitive wages of retailers and fast food chains. But, the federal government's one-time cash infusion is a short-term fix. Michigan's child care subsidy will decrease yearly and expire in 2024. It will take commitment from the state to continue standing in the gap between quality child care costs and what families can afford. She says she fears what will happen when the current support is gone.

"I'm hoping and praying we do not get a decrease. I need to be able to maintain the whole operation," she says. "I need to make sure my staff is paid well so they will stay."

A growing concern

Three miles away, at Children of the Rising Sun Empowerment Center, Zina Davis, or "Mama Zina," as she's fondly called, is also worried about the future. Things are finally feeling stable again at her child care center, inspired partly by Detroit's Waldorf school and partly by the Reggio Emilia approach. 

She's been able to bring her daughter and early educator, Sheara Small, out of the classroom and into the role of site director to learn the business. In late summer, she hired two new "practicing" lead teachers with child care experience motivated to grow their skillset and get certified in the field. She's helped them enroll in the CDA cohort program at Washtenaw Community College, starting in January, free through T.E.A.C.H.

Zina Davis
Davis says hiring amid COVID-19 has been laborious and finding quality teachers nearly impossible. She has let go of five new employees this year. People have come for her entry wage of $13.50 and the state's $1,000 sign-on bonus incentives without lasting 30 days due to call-offs, no-shows, and a general lack of interest in the job. She and other providers in her network have moved to award bonuses when hires reach their 90 days, demonstrating a commitment to the work.

New teachers like Makayla McKenzie, who, after two-and-a-half months at the center, says she already feels part of a family. 

"I love the way they have my back. They're not over my neck, but they make sure I have the things I need," she says. "Zina just asked me the other day regarding my FAFSA and teaching, making sure that everything was clicking so that I'd be able to start school and get that ball rolling to benefit myself, the kids, and the company."

She says she left her previous job because opportunities at her level had capped out. Davis offered a higher wage, a pathway and support for getting certified, and a clear understanding that her pay would increase with certification. Her new boss gave her ownership of her 3, 4, and 5-year-old student classroom by purchasing the supplies she suggested: a circle time board, new art materials, toys, and more.

Makayla McKenzie teaches her class.
What's happening here isn't just care, Davis says; it's education. McKenzie spends the day teaching her students about the planets and the solar system, the seasons, shapes, colors, and numbers. Her students learn to listen carefully to directions, take turns, and celebrate their classmates' efforts. They practice gross motor skills by racing to find letters in the classroom. They mix red and yellow paint to create autumn paintings. 

Most families are eligible for the state's subsidy program in Brightmoor, where Davis' roots are in the community, and she's been offering child care for nearly 18 years. Yet, only with its pandemic boost is the program enough for her to pay quality teachers and cover her overhead costs. 

"It's a true gap," she says. "We shouldn't be competing with McDonald's. We should be hiring teachers at $19 and $21 an hour. That's real education. They want us to serve low-income communities, and they want us to support and give quality. A quality program requires teachers with Bachelor's and Master's degrees who have a developmental understanding of children." 

The center began housing a GSRP classroom funded by the state during COVID-19. The lead teacher in the classroom is working on her Master's degree, and the co-teacher has a CDA and earns $21 an hour. The state's classroom is a whole separate business, Davis says. Even with COVID-19 government investments, she can only realistically pay her new hires $15 or $16 when they receive their certification. Going any higher means she'd have to raise rates for parents who can't afford the increase.

"They pay for quality because they have to have quality because of their regulation and policies," she says. "And if the state could look at that example and say, 'If Head Start (the federally-funded preschool program) is paying for this, and GSRP is paying for this, how about we set up the wages the same as they do, and support that big gap and regular programs that don't get that extra funding?"

The early education field will not keep up with inflation if it can't provide liveable wages, she says, and there's no need to reinvent the wheel when there are models working — Head Start, GSRP, and K-12.

"Mama Sheara" SmallSmall, who has her CDA and is going to school to earn her Associate's degree in Early Education, knows her new position and salary as site director may be temporary. At 28, she's been working in her mother's child care centers for half her life. Coming out of the classroom into the office, she's now learning the business side of child care but still makes time throughout her day to check in on the center's educators.

"I try to be here for teachers because I know, as a teacher, how it is," she says, "A lot of people in upper positions don't really understand the struggles of the people they're telling things to do. I know that you always need help or just a quick check-in—need anything—bathroom? Things like that. So I try to do that as much as possible to help them because, as teachers, we do a lot."

Small's promotion has brought much-needed assistance to the center's administrative staff. It has allowed her family a little financial "wiggle room" to do things like upgrade the car she and her daughter use daily. She's glad not to be living paycheck to paycheck anymore, but it's very stressful, she says, to not know if this security will last. Without that insurance, it's also hard to continue hiring staff. The center currently serves about 30 students, up from 10 after reopening during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the center served 48 children.

"How are we supposed to keep those numbers going," Small asks. "We don't have every classroom full right now. And if we get the numbers, we must add more teachers."

In early child education for almost five years now, McKenzie says a teaching position like hers, where you love what you do, is never about the money. But bills must be paid, and she'd like not to worry about rainy days. Sometimes she struggles to have gas funds to get to work or groceries to pack herself a lunch, and it's hard to save anything for emergencies. She doesn't think it should be this way for the investment she's making in society's children. 

"In America, we have not been valued until COVID-19," she says. "In this class, I teach these kids. We help mold the minds of the future into who they're going to be — doctors, presidents, firefighters."

This entry is part of our Early Education Matters series, exploring the state of early education and childhood care in our region. Through the generous support of the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (SEMI ECFC), we'll be reporting on what parents and providers are experiencing right now, what's working and what's not, and who is uncovering solutions.

All photos by Val Waller unless otherwise noted. 

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