Between the low wages and demands of the job, the childcare business has always been precarious at best. Employers have consistently struggled to attract workers and mitigate the industry’s steep rates of turnover, which research shows were as high as 30% even prior to the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, childcare employers lost hundreds of thousands of workers—and while many of those positions have since been filled, the industry still hasn’t recovered fully: A recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that four out of five childcare centers remained understaffed.
National childcare companies like KinderCare and Bright Horizons have bounced back more easily because they can pay higher wages and offer benefits. But the vast majority of childcare providers across the country are small businesses, many of which couldn’t even stay afloat during the pandemic, let alone match the sorts of wages offered by their deeper-pocketed counterparts. For some of these workers, the financial realities of the pandemic offered clarity on their choice of vocation—or forced them out of the industry altogether.
Until recently, Cheryl, who asked to use only her first name to protect her identity, operated two childcare centers out of her home in upstate New York, where she typically watched over about 15 children. In April, after 20 years in the business—and more than a year into the pandemic—she decided to close her childcare center and leave the industry, which eventually led her to take on a role at her union. Here, Cheryl shares why it was time to give up her job as a childcare worker. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
“Everything was kind of working against me”
The childcare industry is not a money-making industry. It was difficult financially for a while, and the pandemic exacerbated it. I had two locations on my property: I have a guesthouse that had a childcare [center] for infants and toddlers. And in the main house, I had a preschool; they were both licensed and registered. Once the pandemic hit, [one employee] and I ended up working together in the main house—just the one location with a smaller, contained group of children because it was easier to control. I had to eliminate school-age children. It was hard to take care of the little ones, who need a lot of attention and teach [other children] remotely—which some parents needed. We couldn’t do that and provide the correct care and the time they all needed.
Everything was kind of working against me. Enrollment was fluctuating; parents started working from home and pulled their children out. I had to lay off my other employees because I couldn’t sustain their wages. I did have to turn down other parents that had called for enrollment or childcare because I couldn’t hire staff back. Staff didn’t want to come back; they were scared, and they were getting unemployment [checks]. So to justify them coming back, I had to enroll a lot more kids, and that wasn’t sustainable.
I had just increased tuition in January, and I knew that everybody was struggling. And I was scared the whole time. Childcare didn’t get shut down because we were essential workers. But what if somebody got sick? Then we’d have to quarantine. Do I make the parents pay? What’s the correct decision? That was a struggle, too.
“After 20 years, I was ready to be done”
There’s a lot of stress to being just the business owner in itself. It’s not just the kids and the parents. There’s the overhead and payroll and taxes. And it’s the workman’s comp and disability, and you have to make sure all that is intact. Plus you have to follow the regulations. It’s a lot behind the scenes, not just taking care of the kids. When you have a childcare [center], you don’t really have a day off because it’s still in your house. I was lucky because I had staff to cover for me on vacations. But you still worry the whole time. It’s a constant stress.
After 20 years, after all the things that happened, I [was] ready to be done. I loved my job. I love working with families; I love working with children. But it was just at the point where I was like: I need to go in a different direction. It’s stressful when you have children in your home, every single day. It’s a lifestyle that you choose, obviously. But I was burnt out.
An early learning and care representative position became open [at the union]. Usually the union tends to hire from within, but they opened it up; I applied, and I was offered the position. But I was leaving childcare, whether I took this or not. I had a plan B. I have my bachelor’s degree in education, [but] I could not get my teacher certification because I don’t have my master’s. So I went for my teaching assistant certification, thinking I would start working in the schools and work my way back up to getting my master’s and certification. But I was leaving either way. It’s my passion to teach and learn, so working in the schools had always been what I wanted to do—until I had babies.
But I am thrilled with this decision. If I hadn’t had the experience of being a childcare provider, I don’t know if I would be as content in this job. But I had that experience. I know what providers go through, so I can relate to them on their level. And I definitely make more money. And it’s mine—I’m not paying it out to somebody else. I don’t have to stress about “I have to make payroll on Friday,” or “This parent didn’t pay me this week, and now it’s going on two weeks, and they haven’t paid me. Now what am I going to do?” It’s a welcome change, especially at this point in my life. COVID gave me this opportunity, I guess. I probably would have still been holding on by the skin of my teeth.
“Right now, it’s our time to shine”
Before, when you talked to people outside the industry, [I was] just a babysitter; all I did was take care of kids, sit around, and I guess watch TV and do nothing all day, when it was the exact opposite. I have my degree in education, and it was a structured preschool program—a quality program. But the view of the outside world sometimes was: You’re babysitting. When this all hit, the essential workers—nurses, teachers, doctors—had to go to work. And all of a sudden, we became essential.
Right now, it’s our time to shine. There is focus on childcare because they’re starting to realize that for the economic structure—if parents are going to work—they need quality childcare. They’re realizing the funding needs to be there, not just for universal Pre-K programs, but for childcare programs that are the basis for our economy. I think that’s become very central, and I’m hoping that work continues.