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Thursday, Apr 27, 2017
Commentary

Nadaije Paul Jajaoute: The fight for $15

I spend each day with 14 7- and 8-year-olds. I teach them times tables, help them with reading and homework assignments and take them out into the Florida sunshine to get some exercise. For almost eight years now, I’ve worked in child care.

The public schools in our area are underfunded and lacking the basic resources. My job is more than just caring for kids until their parents pick them up after work — it’s about filling in the gaps in a struggling school district and helping these kids get a good education that they carry with them for life.

And yet, I’m paid just $8.05 an hour, which means I take home about $700 each month. I am not offered any paid days off or benefits. Many of my fellow child care providers haven’t seen a raise in 10 years.

Since fast food workers’ launched a movement to fight for $15 and a union, the call for change has been caught on in industries across our economy. In the past month, child care teachers in 10 states, including Florida, joined the national fight for $15. Last week, like so many of our neighbors and friends, we were out in the streets standing side by side with underpaid workers across the country.

Child care teachers and parents — many of whom are low-wage workers in fast food, retail or other similar jobs — are caught in the middle of a broken system that squeezes everyone who just wants the best for our kids. Parents can’t afford to pay more for child care, which averages around $10,000 a year for infant care, and providers can barely pay the bills on their low wages, with most child care teachers paid just $8 to $10 an hour.

I rent a room in a house because I can’t afford to live alone. In the past, I’ve had to sleep in shelters or my car. It’s hot in Florida, and it gets to be like a steam engine in your car. It’s like you’re sleeping in an oven.

It’s not only child care teachers, though, who are hurting. My kids’ parents are struggling to make it work, too. Last year, UC-Berkeley came out with a report that said while child care teachers have had no increase in real wages since 1997, the costs to parents for early childhood care have doubled.

It’s not an understatement to say that early child care and teaching are instrumental to a child’s success in life. Study after study on this issue only proves what I see every day at work. The care and teaching we provide helps shape our kids into happy, curious and thoughtful children who get good grades and make strong friends. Every parent wants their child to be happy and well cared for, and no parent wants to go to work wondering if their kid is in good hands. That’s why we take our jobs so seriously.

I chose child care because I can see the fruits of my labor right in front of me. I see it in those kids’ eyes, in their smiles, and in their laughter. But still, my paycheck is not enough to afford the basics. When I have $5 to spare, I have to decide whether to buy food or get to work. When I get my paycheck, I know I may not eat, but I make sure there’s a smile behind my work for the kids.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama told the country that “it’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or as woman’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

That line still gives me the chills. If the president is talking about child care, it’s definitely time for the rest of us to start taking this seriously. Parents rightly expect a lot from child care providers, but we don’t have a system that invests in its workforce.

A minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union would mean that my co-workers and I can work in the jobs that we love and not worry about getting enough to eat or a place to sleep. We can help stop the high turnover and lack of training that unfortunately exists in child care centers across the country.

Just as a child care system that works for all families should be a national economic priority, so too should be jobs that allow everyone who works hard to pay the bills and get ahead.

Nadaije Paul Jajaoute is a child care teacher in Tampa.

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