For child care workers, minimum wage means sacrifice

Jan 11, 2018

Northern Michigan has a child care crisis. Child care centers are closing, and parents find themselves on long waiting lists to find care for their kids.

Child care providers say one of the big reasons for the shortage is that turnover in the industry is high. Workers typically have no health insurance, no paid vacations and they’re lucky to make $10 an hour.

Toddlers settle in for naptime at Angel Care Preschool in Traverse City.
Credit Aaron Selbig

It’s gotten so bad that many workers are leaving the field they care about because they just can’t make enough money to survive.

Alexis DeWitt spends her days marshaling herds of rambunctious little boys around the playground at Angel Care Preschool in Traverse City. A full day of work at a preschool can be exhausting, but Alexis loves it. And when work is done, she goes home – to her car.

“This is a 2011 Chevy Cruze Eco, so it’s pretty small,” says DeWitt as she shows how to move the seat back into a sleeping position.

For most of the summer, DeWitt slept either in a tent or in the driver’s seat of her Chevy. She would like to have her own apartment, but in Traverse City that’s tough to do on earnings just barely above minimum wage.

Every day, Angel Care Preschool provides lunch for more than 40 children.
Credit Aaron Selbig

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average child care worker in northwestern lower Michigan makes about $21,000 a year.

DeWitt is saving her money while she studies child development at Northwestern Michigan College.

“I can’t force myself to find a different job that makes more money because I love this field too much, and I don’t want to go to another job where I don’t want to come in,” says DeWitt. “Here, I’m ready to come in. I know it’s going to be something new every day. I get to play with the children [and] hear their laughter, and yeah, it’s frustrating sometimes but it’s totally worth it in the end.”

High costs, low pay

Karin Cooney runs Angel Care Preschool. She’s been in the child care business for more than 20 years.

“A lot longer than I ever expected,” she says.

Cooney says she’s lucky – most of her staff have a real passion for working with children. But there’s still a lot of turnover.

Angel Care Preschool Director Karin Cooney.
Credit Aaron Selbig

Cooney says she’s doing everything she can to help her workers. She started a partnership with NMC to get advanced education for them, and Angel Care is one of the few child care centers that offers paid time off. Still, Cooney says she’s had people leave to work at McDonald’s because they could make more money.

“So when you're competing for a labor pool that’s already really tight, you're not going to get the people who have that special thing in their hearts to stay here and work with kids,” says Cooney. “I’m not OK with how much I can pay them. I would like to pay them more, but I can’t.”

Cooney says it’s expensive to run a day care center. There are the costs of the building, utilities and all the food necessary to feed 44 children every day.

And then there are the regulations that keep coming down from the state and federal governments.

Earlier this year, Cooney had to separate her younger kids into two groups because state regulators put a limit on how many could eat lunch at the same time. That change required a new wall to be built in the center – an unforeseen expense that Cooney says squeezed her already tight budget.

“You know, it’s not some legislator down in Lansing saying, ‘how can we make their lives really, really miserable?’” says Cooney. “But when we look at how it’s supposed to work theoretically, and then put it into function, it just creates a lot of bad ideas.”

Cooney doesn’t feel like she can raise rates, either, because most of her parents are stretched thin as it is.

A different model at the YMCA

Courtney Kane, director of the YMCA's Child Development Center in Traverse City, enjoys some outdoor play time with the children.
Credit Aaron Selbig

Across town at the YMCA’s Child Development Center, things are different. The center is sprawling, with different age groups in a half dozen classrooms. It’s laid out much like an elementary school, with a common gym and even a library.

The place is orderly and organized. Lessons include things like music and nature walks.

Courtney Kane is the center’s director. Kane says the teachers here are paid well, mostly due to the backing of the YMCA.

“We are able to give out benefits to our full-time staff,” says Kane. “We are able to give health benefits as well as paid time off.”

The Child Development Center is one of the largest day cares in Traverse City and it draws workers away from other centers. But Kane says even with the YMCA name on the building, the center is not immune from problems. A year ago, the place came close to shutting down.

“The program had lost a lot of money, and it was a challenge to maintain the business model that we had,” she says. “So I went in as the interim director to kind of facilitate … what comes next. And we fought for it.”

Kane says the center would have shut down if it hadn’t found a new home at Sojourn church, which donated space – the classrooms, the gym, the kitchen – for the first year and a half.

Making it work

At Angel Care Preschool, there’s a new two-year program that will slowly raise employee pay above minimum wage.

“I’m hoping that I will be able to make it work,” says Alexis DeWitt.

DeWitt has earned her associate degree in child development, and has been promoted to lead teacher at Angel Care. That means she is paid an extra $1.25 an hour.

For the moment, she’s staying with relatives instead of living out of her car, but Alexis says there’s a good chance she’ll be homeless again at the end of January. 

“It’s not too bad,” she says. “I’m hoping I can save up money … and find a place, eventually find someone who can be my roommate so I don’t have to completely freak out. That’s the end goal.”