.Unliving Wages

News2Santa Cruz preschool workers, who make less than store clerks, want a raise

Santa Cruz child care workers are paid wages so low that some live in boats and trailer parks because they can’t afford to rent a house or apartment. Some don’t have cars and struggle to buy groceries in an area where rents are 71 percent above the national average.

Many of these workers are coming out to support the “Fight for $15” movement, which started in 2012 in New York with a walkout by fast-food workers, and kickstarted a grassroots effort to increase the minimum wage.

“I think it’s terrible,” says State Assemblyman Mark Stone of child care wages. “Instead of being seen as glorified babysitting, we should see child care as part of our obligation to educate our children.”

Sandy Davie, director of the Santa Cruz Toddler Center, has asked the city and county to up their support of the center by $45,000. She would then raise all of her staff to a minimum of $15 per hour with the funds. The city and county will consider her requests in June.

One of the top early education educators in the county, Eric Hoffman, says he doesn’t know how his graduates live on their wages. Hoffman has taught early childhood education at Cabrillo College for 30 years, sending hundreds of teachers into the workforce.

“For a long time, there’s been the sense that child care, that’s what you do with a babysitter,” says Hoffman.

Many child care workers in Santa Cruz County are paid barely more than $9. Store clerks averaged $14.35 an hour in 2014, while child care workers averaged $12.81, and preschool teachers got $14.19, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Low wages drive about 46 percent of child care workers to depend on subsidies such as welfare and food stamps—up to $2.4 billion per year, according to a UC Berkeley study.

What this means, Hoffman says, is that some of the most important people in a child’s formative years are woefully underpaid.

One of them, Jessica Alaimo, works 40 hours a week as a teacher at Santa Cruz Toddler Center in Live Oak. Her pay is less than $15 an hour “by a decent margin,” she says.

“Rent, PG&E, phone and Internet, [excluding] food—my take-home pay is about 76 percent of those costs,” she says.

To make ends meet, Alaimo gets by without a car and works five to seven hours in other child care work each week. She also sells jewelry, and her 18-year-old daughter contributes a bit.

Parents are already paying a small fortune for daycare and preschool. In Santa Cruz, it costs $8,593 a year for full-time preschool care in a licensed home and $9,376 for infants, according to 2012 data from the state Department of Education.

Hoffman says one way to increase pay might be to include California preschool 4-year-olds in the public school system—something they do in Oklahoma, New York and New Jersey.

Stone, the assemblyman who represents Santa Cruz, wants public education to include 4-year-olds, but he doesn’t see support from state leaders.

“That is something the governor just does not understand,” says Stone.  “He sees the child care need really as just warehousing.”

Fran Kipnis of UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment says expanding the years of public schooling could help.

“The K-12 system is publicly supported; parents could never pay [fully] for the education of their children,” says Kipnis. “We need the same type of public support for preschool.”

While the pay is tight, Hoffman, Cabrillo early education teacher, says the rewards have been rich for him.

He came to early childhood education 45 years ago while studying for an architecture degree at MIT. As part of the program, he volunteered in local schools. He tried high school, junior high school and elementary school, and each left him unfulfilled. Then while volunteering at preschools, he found his niche.

Hoffman has designed school playgrounds and written children’s books. His newest, “A Dark, Dark Cave,” has been picked up by Viking/Penguin. He’s also created children’s toys and puzzles that he sells locally during the Open Studios Art Tours and elsewhere.

Hoffman fondly recalls a boy who some parents did not want in a preschool because he was “bossy.” The director let him stay and Hoffman worked with him. Whenever the boy demanded something, Hoffman would say, “I’m pleased to help you.” The boy got the idea and started saying “please.”  

Near the end of the school year, the boy asked Hoffman to help him put his shoes on. When Hoffman said “sure,” the boy screamed “NO!”  Leaning against him, the boy said, “I didn’t say please.” The boy’s mom cried, and several parents apologized to Hoffman for their earlier complaints.

PHOTO: Cabrillo early education teacher Eric Hoffman writes books and builds playgrounds  KEN BURSON


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