MANHATTAN — While Mayor Bill de Blasio’s focus on improving the early childhood sector has helped boost the salaries of those who teach 4-year-olds, the vast network of caregivers of younger children are still struggling to make ends meet, according to a recent study.
The number of home-based family childcare providers, who have contracts with the city to provide subsidized care to low-income families, dropped nearly 14 percent since the program launched in 2012, according to a recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
Providers are blaming the crushing weight of red tape and regulations, which they say are more suited to well-staffed, professionally-run childcare centers for preschoolers than mom-and-pop operations — literally, often grandparents or parents themselves without advanced degrees who are caring for a small number of toddlers and infants in their own homes.
“We work 10 hours a day, if not more. It’s like we’re working in a classroom without getting a teacher’s salary,” said Maria Inez Quinones, who had been taking home about $500 a week for watching four babies and toddlers at her Hooting Owls program on the Lower East Side before taking an emergency family leave a few months ago.
“You have people who walk dogs and get paid more than we do,” she added. “We take care of children, and most of us do it with such love and dedication.”
As part of a larger reform in 2012 under the Bloomberg administration known as EarlyLearnNYC, many home-based caregivers, who already had contracts with the city, saw their roles transformed with new requirements as part of the program's efforts to improve the quality of care.
These caregivers, now part of networks run by nonprofits that help provide support and training, were no longer allowed to take children over the age of 3 — which meant they had to take fewer kids. They also had to adopt a curriculum to follow along with regularly submitting online written observations of their charges' behavior — a particular challenge for many immigrant, non-English-speaking providers since the observations must be submitted in English.
There were more than 2,000 home-based providers that were part of the city’s contracted system before EarlyLearn's implementation. That number has since dropped to about 1,780, the Center for New York City Affairs found.
The reform appears to have hit immigrant providers the hardest, the Center for New York City Affairs report found, noting, for instance, that 40 percent of home-based caregivers with Chinese last names that left EarlyLearn in the last four years.
Pik Shan Lam, a family childcare provider with University Settlement, told researchers the program's requirements are sometimes at odds with what is appealing to some low-income immigrant families, who like these small, “homey” settings usually run by someone who shares their language, culture and child-rearing beliefs.
For instance, Chinese immigrant parents don’t like for their babies and toddlers to go outside when it’s too cold, but her EarlyLearn network requires that the children get fresh air for an hour every day.
It leaves Lam “in the awkward position of having to disappoint either her client or her boss,” the report noted.
Being part of the program has other costs.
Home-based caregivers are among the city’s lowest paid workers: 88 percent of these caregivers polled by the Children’s Defense Fund reported having annual incomes below $25,000, the report noted. But as these caregivers are being pushed to professionalize, many say they’re bringing home less pay per hour than before the reform, the study found.
Although EarlyLearn typically pay a little more than $1 more per child per day than what providers were previously getting, that gain was quickly offset by other expenses, including mandatory insurance, membership fees paid to the nonprofit organization whose network they joined and administrative fees.
Quinones, whose program was part of the Hamilton-Madison House network, said she is only able to survive, she said, because of her husband’s salary.
"We have to cook. We shop for food. We take care of the children, and clean everything. And now, while we are sterilizing toys and preparing food for the next day, we have to do observations,” Quinones told the researchers. “And we have our own families.”
Officials from the Administration for Children’s Services noted that the providers' networks are supposed to work with them on meeting paperwork requirements and also help provide professional development opportunities. And under recent contract changes, officials added, the home-based caregivers will no longer have to pay provider fees to their networks.
“ACS is committed to providing quality child care, regardless of the setting,” said ACS spokeswoman Carol Caceres. “EarlyLearn NYC has transformed early care and education for thousands of NYC children and working families.”
The Center for New York City Affairs report advised the city to bolster supports for the networks and reconsider using practices common for more structured child care centers with home-based providers.
“Quality in family child care can look very different from quality in child care centers,” the report said. “To provide useful support to the home-based programs as well as to understand how to assess quality in these programs, it is important that the organizations and staff supporting the family child care programs value family child care and recognize quality in all its iterations.”