Survey Documents Low Pay, High Turnover Among Child Care Providers

April 08, 1999

BOZEMAN--When Libby Hancock Mack visits child care centers every few months to observe college students, children sometimes will run up to her, thinking she's their new teacher.

"That's how used they are to having new people," said Mack, an early childhood specialist with the Montana Early Childhood Project at Montana State University in Bozeman. "Anyone who walks in the door could be a new teacher. That was a real eye opener for me."

The staff in Montana child care centers turn over at an alarming rate, according to a survey of 91 centers just completed at MSU-Bozeman. Forty percent of teachers leave the job every six months, while turnover among assistant teachers is 63 percent every six months, the survey showed.

Nationally the turnover averages about 35 percent a year in the child care industry, compared with 9 percent for the U.S. workforce as a whole, said graduate student and survey assistant Julie Herron.

"Children don't have the chance to bond with people who walk out the door every three to six months," said Hancock Mack, one of the survey researchers. "Many people working with young children are very dedicated, but we lose a lot of gifted teachers because of the low pay."

Child care pays poverty-level wages in Montana, according to the survey. The median starting wage for child care teachers is $5.40 an hour and $5.15 for assistant teachers. The top wages weren't much higher: $6.50 for teachers and $5.71 for assistant teachers.

What's more, most centers (72 percent) do not offer full or even partially paid health, dental or life insurance, and most offer no paid holidays. Forty-two percent do not provide paid sick leave or vacations.

"With little compensation and no benefits, that's a lot to take," said Claudia Venditti of Bozeman's Child Care Connections, one of 12 child care resource and referral agencies in Montana. "Centers don't make a lot. They're on the brink. But parents can't pay more, so what do you do? It's a hard dilemma."

A steady stream of new faces not only disorients children but makes parents uneasy too, the MSU study noted. Parents worry about their children's responses and their own feelings of loss when a trusted teacher leaves. Staff, too, are demoralized when their coworkers quit because they have to work harder to maintain routines in the center and to train new people.

"The thing that matters most out of all the quality components in child care is the relationship between the child and their caregiver," said Deborah Haynes, an assistant professor of health and human development who helped design the study. "That's the one thing both consumers and providers agree upon."

Scientific research has confirmed that caring, nurturing relationships during a child's earliest years help shape future mental, physical and social skills. That makes high-quality care with consistent caregivers even more important, the researchers said.

But who is going to pay for higher teacher salaries? Many parents already pay between 50 percent and 60 percent of the full cost of child care, typically from the mother's salary, and can't afford to pay more, the researchers said. Federal and state funds pick up the remaining 40 percent for low-income families.

"The problem is so complex that it will take private industry, the community and government to solve it," said Billie Warford, Early Childhood Project director and another member of the survey team. "There's a role for government and other entities."

Venditti of Child Care Connections said she'd like to see businesses contribute more to child care costs because of the number of women in the work force. Studies show that businesses benefit when they don't have to train new workers to replace those who quit over child care issues, she said.

Businesses also could offer dependent care tax credit to families who don't qualify for federal subsidies for child care, said Hancock Mack. A 20 percent state tax credit for businesses that offer such assistance was passed in 1989, but few businesses use it.

Although most of the teachers in the survey (70 percent) had some early childhood training, more education and training is needed, the researchers said. Better training could improve both compensation for child care employees and the quality of services they provide.

Data for the survey were collected and analyzed last fall. Centers are defined as having 12 or more children in a facility.

For more information or a copy of the survey results, contact the Montana Early Childhood Project at MSU toll-free at 800-213-6310.

Montana State University

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