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Montana child care providers, families, demonstrate for equity, better pay

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| May 10, 2022 11:20 AM

BriAnne Moline is a child care provider, and even though her Wild Wonders Early Learning Program is rated a four STAR operation, she competes with fast food restaurants for staff.

She counts three employees and has expanded her business despite red tape, but Moline said she still turns away more than four families a week who need help with child care in Missoula, and she herself qualifies for Medicaid.

“We must build a better child care system,” Moline said.

Medical receptionist Chelsea Nichols helps people make appointments for work, and she sees herself as a connecting block between the community and Frenchtown clinic where she works. She’s also a parent who pays for care for her 3-year-old, Sterling.

“If I didn’t have child care, I wouldn’t be able to work,” Nichols said.

Yet the cost of child care is substantial, an estimated one third of the income of most Montanans and roughly twice her own rent, Nichols said. And spots are limited, with Montana meeting just half of the demand from parents at most, according to the most recent KIDS COUNT report.

“If we don’t have child care, then they can’t contribute to our community and to our economy,” Nichols said.

Monday, some 25 people gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse lawn for the Day Without Child Care Strike, joining child care workers and supporters at Kalispell’s Depot Park and across the country to call for living wages for providers, affordable care for all families, and an equitable child care system “built on racial justice.” People demonstrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in a showing Missoula’s Grace Decker said is unusual by its nature.

Decker, with Missoula County Zero to Five, said industry workers have been “rocked by even the suggestion of a strike” because they have an ethic of care and don’t want to make life harder for parents. They are the least secure workers often earning $9 to $11 an hour, she said, but they are also essential.

“If every child care provider everywhere went on strike, the economy would be on its knees within a day,” said Decker, in advance of the event.

The KIDS COUNT analysis estimated that inadequate child care causes Montana businesses to lose $55 million and parents to miss out on $145 million in wages.

At the demonstration, Decker noted workers love caring for children, but society shouldn’t assume people will continue to work in child care just because it’s fun and they love children. She had noted earlier that child care professionals are leaving the field in high numbers.

“They can’t spend love at the gas pump, and they can’t spend love at the grocery store,” Decker said on the courthouse lawn.

The most recent KIDS COUNT report put numbers to some of the stories speakers shared Monday. For example, it said families in 2020 paid from $8,400 to $9,500 for child care, more than the cost of in-state college tuition.

The May 2021 report, a project of the nonprofit Montana Budget & Policy Center, also noted the problem is more pronounced in rural areas, with six counties lacking even one licensed child care provider at the time: “On average, rural counties have child care for 23 percent of children with all parents working, compared to 38 percent for moderately rural counties and 43 percent in the least rural counties.”

Missoula has more providers by comparison, but Moline, with Wild Wonders, still ticked off many barriers businesses such as hers face, including that some property owners are unwilling to rent to child care providers because they consider them too much liability. Plus, she said it can take three to eight weeks — and many phone calls and emails — to get a worker approved by the state.

Meanwhile, Moline hears aspiring employees asking for $13 an hour, or $27,040 annually, and she’d like to offer them even more — health benefits, a 401(k), and paid time off. KIDS COUNT notes child care workers earned $22,900, in 2020, just above the $18,000 of those earning minimum wage.

At the event, Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero said the word “strike” can put fear in people’s hearts, but the demonstration on the lawn wasn’t pitting providers against parents. Rather, she said it was a day of solidarity, a call to action for government, businesses, nonprofits and community members to figure out how to change the fact that critical workers in an essential field are also some of the lowest paid — “It doesn’t make sense.”

After sharing an observation that high school students who fell behind had been ill prepared even by the time they had started kindergarten, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Missoula Democrat and former teacher, led the demonstrators in a chant about “The most important job.”

Montana has a problem statewide, O’Brien said. But she called on people on the lawn to participate in their democracy and communicate with their elected leaders at all levels for change.

“Friends, there is a solution,” O’Brien said.

In a statement following the demonstration, Kalispell’s Renee August, executive director of the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children, said the situation is a crisis. The association noted Congress is considering new federal investments in early child care and education and urged action.

“Montana families need Congress to deliver on its promise to help families find affordable care, support workers with living wages, and help ensure our child care system is equitable,” August said in a statement.

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