Early Educators Deserve Better, Starting With Health Care and Retirement Benefits

About two years ago, I had a health crisis that not only jeopardized my well-being, but also threatened the continuity of care for the families I serve as the owner of a home-based child care program.

One day when I was cleaning up at the end of a work day, I began experiencing heart palpitations and difficulty breathing. After a number of medical visits, I was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFIB) — a condition which can lead to blood clots and a risk of stroke or a heart attack. My doctors put me on heart medicine as a first step, but things worsened. Since then, I’ve had a number of procedures including a surgery on my heart.

Left with no choice, I took a leave of absence to get treatment and recuperate. To keep the program running, I relied on my adult daughters, who chose to move back in with me and work alongside the part time teacher I employ.

As a longtime early childhood educator who has been nurturing young minds for four decades, I’m aware of the many challenges of the profession, from compensation to staffing to a lack of respect for the work. But this experience left me wondering — where is my safety net when I fall ill or seek retirement as an early childhood educator?

Desperate to keep my program open, even though I couldn’t work myself, I sought financial assistance. I received state disability benefits back in 2022, when my health crisis began, but it wasn’t renewed the subsequent year. The lack of support has left me feeling frustrated and embarrassed, especially considering my long-standing service to the community.

Sadly, my experience is not uncommon. According to a survey administered to more than 350 early childhood educators by the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC) — a nonprofit that supports home-based early learning programs like mine — only 16 percent of respondents reported that their income allowed them to afford essential benefits like retirement and health insurance.

While some states are taking steps to address various elements of the child care crisis, the reality remains: We are undervalued and overlooked. With the average child care worker earning just $32,070 annually, fair compensation, benefits and federal support are imperative. It’s time to recognize the vital role we play and provide us with the support we deserve.

The absence of adequate support for the early childhood workforce resonates throughout the entire child care system, impacting early educators, children and families. When experienced professionals like myself are forced to step away due to health concerns or lack of financial stability, it disrupts the consistency and quality of care for the children we serve. Families are left scrambling to find alternative arrangements, and the relationships we’ve built with them are jeopardized.

Moreover, the challenges faced by early educators extend beyond financial strains. For me, the emotional toll of navigating a health crisis without a safety net was overwhelming. I entered this profession out of a genuine passion for supporting our littlest learners, but the constant stress and uncertainty of knowing whether I’d be able to keep the doors open took a toll on my well-being. I deserve better. We all do.

Addressing these systemic issues requires a multifaceted approach. First, there must be increased investment in the child care sector to ensure that early educators are compensated fairly for the invaluable work we do. This includes not only raising wages, but also providing comprehensive benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. Additionally, there needs to be greater awareness and advocacy surrounding the unique challenges faced by those of us in the profession, with a focus on implementing policies that prioritize the well-being of child care providers and the children in their care.

As for me, I’m still recovering and have a number of physical limitations, but thankfully, I’ve been able to keep my program running and have taken a more active role in advocating for early childhood educators. I have sat on advisory boards to communicate the needs of family child care providers, shared my voice as a panelist on these issues and reached out to my mayor and local council to get involved. I am learning more about child care policies and how I, as a family child care educator, can make change.

I’ve spent my entire career supporting children and their families, first as an early educator and then as the owner of my own early learning program. Next year will mark 20 years since I started working for myself, and it was one of the best decisions I have made. It hasn’t been easy; however, I am extremely proud of the program I have created. It is one where children are safe and loved, and where parents have peace of mind while they’re away from their babies. I will continue to raise my voice and advocate for all early educators. It’s time for us to be recognized, supported and valued as essential contributors to society.

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