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The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the nation’s reliance on care workers and demonstrated the fragility of the childcare industry. The Center for American Progress estimates that 4.5 million childcare slots are at risk of disappearing during the pandemic unless they receive adequate federal support, and that more than 200,000 employed in the industry have already lost their jobs this year. Childcare centers owned by people of color are especially hard hit, with over 50 percent of surveyed providers anticipating they will permanently shut their doors.

Even before the pandemic, the childcare sector faced significant infrastructure challenges—including safety, facilities, and personnel—that are rarely discussed. For example, in 2013 and 2014, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that 96 percent of childcare programs in 10 states had a potentially hazardous condition such as broken or unlocked gates, water damage, knives accessible to children, or exposed nails on the playground. And in many communities, a lack of available facilities prevents high-quality programs from expanding, most notably in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Coupled with persistent low wages, a lack of professional development opportunities for caregivers, and significant racial gaps in wages, these challenges have contributed to a reality in which less than 10 percent of the country’s early care and education programs are considered high quality.

Most childcare workers are women, often Black and brown, earning well below a living wage. Yet they are on the frontlines of the future, providing necessary care and promoting the healthy development of our youngest citizens. The median pay for childcare workers is $24,230 a year, and reportedly nearly half are eligible for some form of government assistance.

Federal pandemic stimulus funds have provided some relief. But once the industry is stabilized, more must be done to ensure high-quality care for the youngest Americans and good, resilient jobs for those working in the industry.

Empowering Childcare Workers with Co-ops

One way to do this is by adopting more worker ownership in the childcare industry through worker cooperatives (co-ops). Co-ops provide a viable, time-tested path to expanding opportunity and dignity for workers, stabilizing the childcare industry during a moment of great peril, and growing economic democracy.

Childcare co-ops put some of society’s most important essential workers in charge of their futures. As businesses owned and governed by members instead of by sole proprietors or stockholders, worker co-ops are driven by member values rather than profit alone. Worker-members share in the profits, participate in oversight and, often, management of the business, using democratic principles.

Because worker-owned co-ops function differently from other businesses, they build equity and ownership for care workers, who have been historically marginalized in an extractive economy. It is vital that workers taking care of young children have a greater voice in their businesses. Money alone does not affirm the dignity of this work. Voice, power, and participation, along with money, do. Taken together, they provide what political philosopher Michael Sandel has called “redistributed esteem.”

Worker co-ops create good jobs and pathways to wealth, says Esteban Kelly, executive director of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Co-ops have a much higher success rate at weathering those critical first five years of business and surviving beyond. They also pay a lot better for entry-level positions. Whereas the typical entry level job pays close to minimum wage, “in worker co-ops it’s closer to almost $20 an hour, depending on the industry,” he says.

Kelly adds, “The pay ratio in worker co-ops is about 2:1 from the highest paid to the lowest paid. In a traditional corporation, it’s 278:1, not to mention, in worker co-ops folks have more opportunities to rise to higher levels of worker ownership, maybe even becoming board members.”

Some examples of US-based worker-owned childcare co-ops include the following:

  • In Philadelphia, Childspace was founded in 1988 as a worker co-op that recognized that quality jobs for childcare workers were an essential, but often overlooked, building block for centers seeking to provide the highest quality of care.
  • The Rose Garden in Buffalo transitioned to employee ownership in 2017 and employee-owners serve on the board, set organizational policy, and participate in community events to help grow the business.
  • Beyond Care Childcare Cooperative was launched in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in June 2008 by 17 immigrant women and founding membe