By Heather Lavoie
Essential workers have been working throughout the pandemic. On Monday, we will celebrate Labor Day, a day dedicated to workers. While the holiday is a nice sentiment, it raises the question: Are we honoring workers the other 364 days of the year?
This year has brought into sharp focus important issues, like which workers are essential and how are they valued for the work that they do. Child care workers are one example of essential workers who have been asked to continue working throughout the pandemic. What working parents, especially working moms, have known for years became increasingly clear during this public health crisis: Child care is critical to our economy and our society’s well-being as a whole.
It is a sad irony that a day meant to pay tribute to workers can actually hurt those working minimum wage paying jobs. For the child care workers living paycheck to paycheck, having an unpaid day off to “honor their contributions” could actually result in further financial strain on them due to that lost day of wages. Although child care workers have and will always be essential, they are incredibly undercompensated for their important work.
When asked to assess the value put on workers and their contributions to our society, it is fair to use their wages and benefits as a measure. The demographics of child care workers tell a predictable story because they are predominantly women and people of color; this industry and its workforce are chronically undervalued. When the cost of living in Hawaiʻi is accounted for, child care workers here have the lowest median adjusted wage in the country in their industry at $7.94 an hour. The average annual income for child care workers in Hawaiʻi is $21,210. It is unconscionable that our critical workers are paid poverty wages to care for children. Child care workers have been asked to jeopardize their health and safety and that of their family for the sake of our community, and they have bravely done so for the past six months. These workers deserve to be paid a living wage to care for and nurture keiki, one of the most important jobs there is.
Child care workers' contributions to our society sustains its functionality for everyone. While many do not associate the economy with child care, this workforce is truly the heart of the economy. Many families cannot return to work without child care. Many schools opted not to go back in person or do a hybrid option due to the public health concerns of reopening. With many children doing virtual learning in lieu of going to school in person, the need for child care has only grown. Unfortunately, child care was already scarce prior to the pandemic and the public health crisis has only exacerbated this trend, with many providers being forced to close due to financial hardship.
Frontline workers deserve more than applause; they deserve an economy where they matter. Instead of giving them a day off to relax just once a year, what if we compensate workers for their worth and indispensability all 365 days of the year? Child care has now been thrust into the limelight as arguably the most important industry for the economy. This moment requires a paradigm shift in the way child care is structured and the way those that deliver it are treated. There will not be an economic recovery without child care. Child care workers are continuing to support families while simultaneously struggling to afford their most basic needs. It is time that the industry and its workers are properly funded, compensated and valued. Although this year, there won’t be street parades or parties to celebrate Labor Day, perhaps this is the better way to celebrate the American worker.