Child care workers show unions can help solve ‘she-cession’

By Lee Saunders and Miren Algorri

We have some monumental “firsts” to celebrate this Women’s History Month. Sarah McBride, a new state senator from Delaware, is the highest-ranking openly transgender elected official in American history. Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins broke a glass ceiling in becoming Major League Baseball’s first woman general manager. And, of course, Kamala Harris is the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States.

But another “first” from the past year is nothing to celebrate: the first female recession.

The pandemic has triggered a so-called “she-cession” that has wreaked havoc in women’s lives. More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce between February 2020 and February 2021, compared to about 1.8 million men.

As a union that represents tens of thousands of family child care providers who are predominantly women of color, we can tell you that child care is the “women’s work” that undergirds all women’s work — and that it is a structure in danger of collapse. If we don’t find a fix for our broken child care system, we are imperiling not only this critical workforce, but also all the working families who depend on affordable, quality child care to make their own jobs possible.

Another “first” for women this past year is a momentous step toward finding that fix. Last July, California’s family child care providers voted overwhelmingly to be represented by Child Care Providers United (CCPU), a joint union organizing project between AFSCME and SEIU nearly 20 years in the making. Together, we are working to ensure every child has access to quality early learning and care and every provider receives the pay, respect and resources they deserve.

Winning a voice on the job through union representation could not have come at a better time for California’s family child care providers. The pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for child care providers: new sanitation supplies, sudden closings after a positive COVID test, taking on distance learning for older children and more. Have you ever tried to convince a roomful of three-year-olds to wear a mask and maintain social distance? It has all added up to more work, greater pressures and higher costs. Fourteen percent of California child care facilities — more than 3,600 total — closed between January 2020 and January 2021. Without CCPU, that number would likely be much higher.

With our newly won collective bargaining rights, CCPU has been able to secure critical relief from the state, negotiating a first-ever agreement on COVID supports for providers, ratified by the legislature and signed by Governor Newsom last month. Among other things, it includes more paid closure days so providers can afford to reopen after COVID exposures and stipends to help cover the higher costs of providing care during the pandemic. And at the federal level, the American Rescue Plan signed this month by President Biden includes $39 billion in additional child care investments.

But addressing pandemic-related problems in the child care system won’t help us build a better future for women workers. Child care was in crisis long before COVID-19. Providers face abysmally low pay; many live below poverty line and without access to basic benefits. At the same time, quality affordable child care is out of reach for approximately two million California families.

To survive the current crisis and to help all women workers achieve lasting equality, we need both additional pandemic relief right now as well as a long-term investment in the child care workforce. As we mark Women’s History Month, let’s commit ourselves as a society to valuing women’s work — and lifting up all the women who make that work possible.

Child care provider Miren Algorri surrounded by children and her co-workers.

Lee Saunders is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Miren Algorri is a San Diego child care provider with United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930.

AFSCME’s members provide the vital services that make America happen. We advocate for prosperity and opportunity for all working families.