The RI General Assembly Must Prioritize Childcare Providers in Its COVID-19 Response

The RI General Assembly Must Prioritize Childcare Providers in Its COVID-19 Response

Alyson E. Panzarella, M.J.

The RI General Assembly is bound to convene at some point as we reopen Rhode Island, and among their top priorities should be the Rhode Island Early Educator Investment Act (H 7271, S 2462, S 2630). This bill will establish a collaboration between the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and the RI Department of Education (RIDE) to determine a target wage scale for early childhood educators and develop strategies for implementation. The goal will be to create a path to fair wages with the assistance of public funds.

         Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the early childhood system was at a breaking point. We already knew that 40% of infant/toddler educators worried about having enough food to feed their families, and 50% were housing insecure. We also knew that a third of all early childhood educators worked a second job. Reports of burn-out and turnover within the field were overwhelming. Again, this was prior to the pandemic. A recent survey conducted by DHS and covered by the Providence Journal concluded that 40% of childcare providers throughout the state are at risk of closing as a result of the current economic crisis. This will further cause economic insecurity among an already struggling workforce, many of whom have already been laid off.

         On June 1st, childcare providers across the state will begin to reopen following a suspension of all childcare licenses, calling a workforce that makes $12/hr to the front lines of an unprecedented pandemic. What is the message we are sending to early childhood educators? It says a majority-female workforce should put itself at risk while making poverty-level wages in an effort re-open the economy.  Yes – there is validity in considering the childcare workforce essential. The struggle of working parents to find affordable, high-quality childcare is well documented. Costs are high, and middle-class families are suffering annual costs that are often higher than college tuition. Providing high-quality childcare is expensive and should not be a burden to families. Therefore, public investment is key, but public investment should go beyond alleviating the burden on families.  

         Considering what we are asking of the childcare workforce, it is imperative that we re-examine our investment in their worth. Like many essential workers throughout our community, we are learning we cannot thrive, socially or economically, without them. It is time we compensate them that way. Although progressive childcare policies will be sustaining a major blow as the General Assembly scrambles to fill the massive revenue hole caused by the pandemic, the Rhode Island Early Educator Investment Act is a no-cost opportunity to move the childcare issue forward.