Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Early childhood workers and parents advocate for better pay and affordable child care

As toddlers ran around a temporarily closed daycare center in Albuquerque, adults chanted “sí se puede, sí se puede” in a small, colorfully decorated room where workers normally watch over young children.

In Las Cruces, tucked away in a mobile home on the East Mesa, a dozen workers and parents touted signs emblazoned with “New Mexico trabaja porque nosotros trabajamos,” (New Mexico works, because we work).

Kelly’s Learning Academy in Las Cruces joined the Albuquerque-based Avengers Learning Center, as well as four other day cares in the central city, in a closure on Monday as part of the national Day Without Child Care. Nonprofit OLÉ organized New Mexico’s demonstrations.

Education workers and parents gathered behind the closed doors to illustrate the need for early childhood workers and day care centers. This comes after the COVID-19 pandemic intensified a shortage of child care workers and facilities.

Even as the state committed Monday to maintain affordable child care programs and provider wages, advocates gathered to call for higher and more equitable wages.

Helping New Mexicans pay for child care

The New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced on Monday that a child care assistance program previously set to expire after July will keep going.

The state program waives parent copays on child care for families whose income is up to 400% of the federal poverty level, which can add up to about $120,000 a year for a family of four. It also sets early child care provider rates at a minimum of $15 per hour.

The full list of what the Department wants to do can be found here. A public comment period on the proposed regulations is open through June 22, when the agency will meet to potentially amend the rules based on the public input.

Ivydel Natachu works at ChildCo Day School in Albuquerque. She said $15 per hour is a good starting point, but workers should really be getting at least $18 per hour.

Natachu makes $20 per hour herself as a teacher at the school. That’s a bump up from $17 per hour after last year’s state-promised $3 pay raise kicked in. Even at $20 per hour, she said most of her paycheck goes to rent, leaving little left over for other necessities.

In addition to needing more to pay for basic expenses, Natachu said providers should be paid adequately for the experience they bring to the field.

“We really want the public to know we are not babysitters,” she said. “We have the education to teach children, the youngest children in New Mexico, to become independent, to help them with their milestones.”

Natachu said a wage and career ladder would help workers get paid better. This would be a system to compensate teachers more based on additional years of experience, education or speaking multiple languages.

Ivydel Natachu speaks at Avengers Learning Center LLC during a protest to demand higher wages for educators on Monday, May 8, 2023, in Albuquerque, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

Micah McCoy, spokesperson for the state Department, said creating this system is the first objective in its five-year strategic plan.

He said the agency also has a wage ladder in its four-year finance plan and cost model, which would reimburse early childhood providers based on “assumed increases in wages for increased levels of qualifications.”

Karen Mejía owns the Avengers Learning Center with her husband. She pays her dozen or so employees the minimum $15 per hour because she can’t afford more than that. She said her workers used to get even less, before the statewide $3 boost.

Because of low wages, Mejía said, it’s been difficult finding people who want to work at daycares. She said public school districts or even chain stores like Walmart or Costco pay more.

“I need more money for my teachers, workers,” she said.

A woman smiles, holding a microphone. Behind her, a sign reads The owner of Avengers Learning Center LLC, Karen Mejía, speaks at the center during a protest to demand higher wages for educators on Monday, May 8, 2023, in Albuquerque, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

The wage increase will be a relief for employees, said Merline Gallegos, the director of Kelly’s Learning Academy.

“We’re just recovering, we’re floating, just enough to pay the bills, pay the workers, but we are not able to make a profit,” Gallegos said in Spanish.

Gallegos and her staff are able to care for 12 children, but there are another 14 on the waiting list.

While low wages and high turnover plagued early child care before the pandemic, COVID-19 caused a crisis, as a shortage of facilities and workers became acute, said Alicia Borrego, executive director for New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children.

“All of a sudden there’s an even worse child care shortage, people didn’t have a place to take their kids,” Borrego said. “I know several child care centers across the state that have a waiting list of over 1,000 kids trying to get into child care.”

Merline Gallegos, the director of Kelly’s Learning Academy in Las Cruces, pictured May 8, 2023 during a demonstration for higher wages for early childhood education workers. She estimated the pandemic shuttered more than 20 other early child care centers across southern New Mexico, including Silver City, Alamogordo and Las Cruces. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

New Mexico maintains child care affordability programs and wages for providers

Funding for the state waiver and minimum $15 per hour wage isn’t fully promised beyond 2023.

McCoy said the agency has one-time federal funds to waive the copay and $15 per hour minimum wage for this fiscal year. He said he hopes the state will keep funds coming in future years.

“We are hopeful that we can work with the Legislature in coming years to ensure that child care assistance is fully funded so that families can enjoy increased financial stability and children can continue to grow and develop in high quality early learning environments,” he said.

He said “barring the unanticipated,” the Department should have enough funds to continue the child care assistance and waive copays through June 2024.

If that copay waiver disappears, Diana Gonzales, a parent and member of the Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, couldn’t afford to send her children to day care. She’s a mom of two and makes about $20,000 a year as a physical trainer.

Most of her paycheck goes to rent and another significant chunk goes to groceries, which leaves little funds left over for child care needs. She said if she had to cover the copay, she’d have to find another job or someone else to take care of her children, but would struggle financially either way.

She said early childhood educators help her and many other parents who have jobs in watching over and teaching their children. She said that’s hard work which needs to be paid adequately.

“We don’t have the time needed to teach them the basic skills and to get that learning and knowledge that they need,” Gonzales said.

At the Avengers day care center, Mejía said over 70 children attend regularly. She said many of her clients would also struggle to afford sending their kids there without the state waiving their payments.

Mejía said one client would have to pay $2,000 out of her $3,000 monthly paycheck to keep her kids at the center. The parent has already told Mejía she can’t afford that, so if she had to cover the copay, Mejía said, then she would have to send their kids somewhere else.

“Everything is really expensive,” Mejía said. “The families need more money.”

Lourdes Perez, 35, works in the fields, picking onions and chiles during the summer and fall months.

Perez said it was difficult to find child care that would accept the early hours – dropping children off at 4 a.m. and picking them up after school – but also because of the language barrier between herself and early educators.

“I understand more (English) than what I can speak,” Perez said in Spanish. “Especially when you go to a center where people will not see you or talk to you when you don’t speak English, it’s a barrier.”

If she loses the copay waiver, or the Kelly’s closes, she said there’s no good alternative for four of her six children.

“I’m always wondering what would happen if they closed the center,” Perez said. “I would hate for it to close, because parents are struggling to find child care.”

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