Recent years have taught us child care workers are truly essential. Without them, other workers are forced to leave work to care for young children, costing them earnings they need now and the savings to retire with dignity. This burden is felt by families in every corner of our state, but it particularly impacts rural areas and overwhelmingly falls on women to sacrifice their economic autonomy.
Maine lawmakers are well aware of the critical role of child care workers, which is why last year legislators unanimously passed and the governor signed a bill to provide $200 monthly supplements to our child care workers. This and other investments helped stabilize a system in freefall, as many of Maine’s family and center-based child care providers permanently closed their doors during the pandemic. Now, our state has a chance to blaze a trail toward a stable, accessible, high-quality child care system, in the form of LD 1726, a bill introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson.
Child care workers’ low pay holds families back
Caring for a family member is one of the primary reasons people who wish to enter the labor force are not working or looking for work. From the past year through this February, 24,000 Mainers cited a lack of available child care as the primary reason they weren’t in the labor force.1 While many issues impact access to and availability of child care, the primary factors are low wages for child care workers and high costs of child care services.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median hourly wage for child care workers in Maine is lower than that of retail salespeople and food prep workers. Even though many child care workers hold early childhood education degrees and prepare young children for school, they earn on average 60 percent of what kindergarten teachers make and just over half (53.5 percent) of what elementary school teachers earn.2 If we want to attract and retain more people in a career that gives workers in every corner of the state the chance to stay in their jobs, we must do better by them.
Low wages make it extremely difficult for child care centers to recruit and retain staff. A 2021 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found 85 percent of child care centers in Maine were experiencing staffing shortages, with low wages overwhelmingly identified as the biggest barrier to recruitment. A survey last year found the top challenges for Maine’s child care centers were growing waitlists and staff shortages. And according to one analysis, by the end of 2022 Maine had 280 fewer child care centers than two years earlier.
Despite low wages of child care workers, child care is still unaffordable
While child care workers are paid low wages, for many parents the cost of child care is either out of reach or too high to justify staying in the workforce. In 2021, Maine Department of Health and Human Services found the market rate for full-time toddler care at a licensed center was more than $11,000 per year in Washington County and over $14,000 in Cumberland County. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services definition of child care affordability, infant care is affordable to only 11.9 percent of Maine families.
LD 1726 sets out ambitious goals to building a resilient child care system
The combination of high costs and low wages is a market failure that demonstrates why our state must make deeper investments in child care.
LD 1726 would help by:
- Doubling the current wage supplements for child care workers from $200 to $400 per month — in communities throughout Maine, this extra money could make the difference between someone who loves her job leaving to make more money at a big box store or fast-food restaurant, and one who continues pursuing her passion as an early childhood educator
- Expanding eligibility to Maine’s Child Care Subsidy Program (CCSP) from 85 percent to 125 percent of State Median Income so more working families can afford the cost of child care
- Improving CCSP’s administration so more providers are incentivized to participate and offer subsidized placements for families in their communities
Efforts to raise workers’ wages and expand access to subsidies are critical to helping workers and families now. However, even with these steps, workers, families, and child care centers will struggle to maintain stability. LD 1726 would establish a cost-of-care model that, instead of seeking what is the current market rate of an ailing child care system, involves people including educators and parents — who know the system best and are impacted by policy — to comprehensively assesses what it costs to offer high-quality early childhood education while paying workers a living wage. If LD 1726 passes, Maine would set a course to ensure by 2030 low-income and working families spend no more than 7 percent of their income on child care.
While it was true before the pandemic, we are now acutely aware of the critical role child care workers play in our economy. LD 1726 presents the rare opportunity to invest in workers and families so they can thrive and our children can grow up with all the benefits of high-quality early education.
 May 2021 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, available at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_me.htm