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California child care workers' union on hold while they struggle with supplies, safety

“Trying to maintain everything sanitized, clean and safe for everyone involved has been a huge challenge and even scary,” a child care worker said.

Gabriella Cisneros looks after 14 children at her home day care outside San Diego and is down to her last bottle of Clorox wipes. A private childcare operator, she has a few rolls of paper towels and a little hand sanitizer left, but she doesn’t know how long those will last so that she can keep the kids, and her livelihood, safe.

It’s the latest concern for these crucial workers who make sure grocery store employees, EMTs, nurses, doctors, police officers and others on the front line can work and know their children are safe.

But Cisneros, 38, said dwindling resources and a lack of health insurance is putting independent day care workers at risk — all while they have had to delay organizing a union through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees because of disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic.

Cisneros is one of more than 40,000 workers in California who operate day care centers in their homes licensed by the state, taking care of kids whose fees are subsidized and others whose parents pay privately. Though more than 10,000 workers have shown their support for the unionization movement, the election slated to be held this month has now been put off indefinitely.

Alicia Turner, a private childcare provider, celebrates at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2019 after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill giving child care providers collective bargaining rights.Robert Durell / American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

That means these workers are as far away as ever from being able to get the support and health care coverage they’ve sought for years.

In the meantime, even the day to day presents a struggle.

Cisneros said tracking down cleaning supplies and even buying bulk food for the kids she cares for has been nearly impossible. She said that Costco denied her request for private child care operators to be able to shop during the special hour for essential workers.

She’s tried Instacart, setting alarms at all hours of the day to try to be able to find a window in which she can make a purchase — all to no avail.

“Trying to maintain everything sanitized, clean and safe for everyone involved has been a huge challenge and even scary,” Cisneros said. “It’s really difficult to get out there and replenish because stuff isn’t available. By the time we get done here — we close our doors at 5 o’clock — there’s nothing left on the shelves.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the $2 trillion bill signed by President Donald Trump, provided no direct relief to child care workers. The report found that only 11 percent of providers said they could remain open after closure without some support.

Miriam Edwards, who runs a day care out of her home in Sacramento, suffers from an autoimmune disease. Her daughter has asthma, which means contracting the coronavirus is a particular threat to them both, but they still must hunt for supplies the best they can to keep their doors open.

“We’re normally used to going to maybe two or three stores, but now I’m happy if I go to five or six to find everything I need,” Edwards said.

And while money tends to always be tight for child care workers, as spelled out by the NAEYC report, Edwards said that she refuses to let in children even with the slightest of colds, telling parents that they cannot come inside.

Edwards said she is trying to protect herself as well as the other children and their parents, many of whom are essential workers — from nurses to police officers.

“I let them know if a kid comes in with a runny nose, slight cough, whatever: They’re going to be sent straight home,” she said. "And they can’t come back — even if I know they have allergies — until I have a doctor’s clearance from the parents.”

Not only is it for the safety of the other children, that policy is also for the safety of the workers who have limited access to health insurance.

While Edwards has coverage now through her husband, she’s gone through periods without it, amassing bills for medical tests related to her conditions that have left her with thousands of dollars of debt.

The workers hoped that the union would provide better and more reliable health insurance when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in October allowing them to organize under the state.

But that was before the pandemic, which has taken a huge economic toll on California.

“A lot of things are now in question, and in the last recession we saw significant cuts in child care programs,” Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center said. “But workers having an organization will make them a stronger force as the state determines which direction to go in.”

Charlotte Neal, a childcare worker in California, speaks at a pro-union event in Sacramento, Calif., on May 1, 2019. More than 40,000 providers in the state earned the right to unionize in October.Robert Durell / American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

Jacobs said the willingness to expand health care benefits through state programs will shrink as the state’s budget gets tighter. “Overall, the state budget crisis will make everything more difficult,” he said. “We’ve got a big downturn coming.”

Still, the appeal by child care workers in California has been met with some success: Newsom announced that the state would pledge $50 million in funding for cleaning supplies for child care providers, offering reimbursements for purchases of gloves, face coverings, cleaning supplies and other cleaning costs.

Though many were happy to hear that news, workers said one of the greatest challenges is still acquiring the supplies.

“For me this moment is stressful, and I know the doctors tell me, ‘Don’t stress because that’s the worst thing for your autoimmune disease,’” Edwards said. “But that’s the hardest thing to do is not to stress right now.”

Cisneros has lost five families from her practice, largely restaurant workers who have been laid off and can no longer afford to put their kids in child care.

“I've sat back and, in ways, considered: ‘Should I just close my doors?’" she said. "But then it's hard. It's hard to say I'm going to close my doors on all these families that still need me.”