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Kansas City Child Care Workers Are Watching Other People's Kids Without A Safety Net Of Their Own

Courtsey Shantelle Tomlin
Because fewer kids are attending Tomlin Academy right now, owner Shantelle Tomlin has had to send most of her teachers home.

Child care providers in the metro have been allowed to stay open in order to watch the kids of essential workers who still need to do their jobs.

But advocates worry the child care workers themselves, many of whom are low paid and don’t have health insurance, are working through the COVID-19 crisis without a safety net.

“It’s not a question of if somebody gets sick taking care of other people’s children, it’s a question of when,” said Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet. 

“This was a problem for the profession before COVID-19 happened, and then you add on top what we're dealing with now, such an unprecedented crisis? The strain on the system is very worrisome to me.”

Fewer families

Tomlin Academy is still open, but it’s anything but business as usual for the preschool at 97th and Holmes in Kansas City, Missouri. Attendance is down from 80 students to about 25.

“(Parents) are all very concerned about the welfare of their kids,” Shantelle Tomlin said. “Many of them have made personal sacrifices to ensure that they're able to be at home with their kids, you know, protect them from the virus.”

But with fewer children to take care of, Tomlin has had to send most of her staff home.

Credit Courtesy Shantelle Tomlin
Students play in the grass at Tomlin Academy because they're not allowed on the playground equipment anymore. That's to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Right now she’s doing everything child care providers are supposed to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Parents have to drop their kids off curbside. All of the toys have been put away. At the end of each day, Tomlin sanitizes every surface, every door knob, every handle.

But she says it’s getting harder to get the supplies she needs to stay open.

“We are having struggles getting food, getting milk. You go to the store, and it says ‘Limit one’ on everything. I had to have a conversation with the manager,” Tomlin said. “Like, ‘Look, I run a business.’ Kids need to eat.”

Last week, the Missouri Department of Social Services announced it would make a special payment to Child Care Subsidy providers like Tomlin, based on pre-pandemic attendance. To get it, providers have to keep paying their staff that can’t work.

“That’s a blessing right there,” Tomlin said.

No benefits

Congress allocated $3.5 billion for child care programs as part of a broader coronavirus relief package. Providers can also apply for Small Business Administration loans if they’re eligible, though that’s money that has to be paid back.

Grants and loans will help child care providers reopen when the pandemic ends and pay workers in the meantime. But there was nothing in the stimulus package to solve the other problem many child care workers are facing: a lack of health insurance.

“It’s frustrating to all of us that health benefits are not often part of the compensation our workforce receives,” Rooker said.

In Kansas and Missouri, child care workers whose jobs don’t offer insurance either have to be insured on a spouse’s policy or buy coverage on the federal exchanges. Typically, the cost is out of reach for child care workers, who earn an average of $9.25 an hour in Kansas. Missouri providers pay a little more. Still, it’s less than $24,000 per year, on average.

And there won’t be another chance to enroll this year. Everyone was expecting the Trump administration to reopen the federal exchanges, but the president didn’t.

Rooker, a former state lawmaker from Fairway, is frustrated that Medicaid expansion has stalled in Kansas. 

“I would say it’s a perception problem, the perception that it’s a program that would help able-bodied adults who are too lazy to work,” Rooker said on a biweekly call with child care workers last month. “If that offends you because you are a hardworking, very dedicated profession who needs health insurance and is gainfully employed, then they need to hear from you.”

Working sick

The child care workers KCUR spoke say all the hand washing and counter wiping in the world won’t stop the spread of COVID-19 in child care centers, which are notorious germ incubators. 

“I mean, kids cough directly in my face,” said Angela, who works at a large child care center in Kansas City, Missouri.

(KCUR is referring to child care workers in this story by their first names to protect their privacy.)

“There is something very dehumanizing about telling someone, ‘Well, you know, you're just going to have to risk it,’” Angela said, pointing out that schools are closed right now. “If you're a kindergarten teacher, you get to stay home and stay safe. But if you’re keeping a 4-year-old, your safety isn’t a consideration.”

Angela’s center is still open, but only for the children of essential workers. Because Angela has an autoimmune disorder, she hasn’t been asked to work. She doesn’t think anyone should have to risk their health for a paycheck, though.

“If child care workers were told to stay home, they would be the last ones to be able to. They’re definitely risking their life to take care of your kid,” Angela said.

Another worker at a different child care center told KCUR the same thing. The large, faith-based provider in Overland Park, Kansas, Samantha works for is closed right now, so she’s nannying for a family. She’s also a single mom with two kids herself. 

Samantha says like most child care workers, she never misses work if she can help it.

“I’ve worked with strep, I worked with pinkeye, I worked with bronchitis and walking pneumonia,” Samantha said. “So it's good that we're closed down. If we weren't, it would be a catastrophe.”

Samantha lives paycheck to paycheck but considers herself more fortunate than most because she has health insurance through work. 

“One of the ways that they've been able to keep good teachers despite paying industry standard pay, which as we know, is not good, is that they offer good health insurance and good benefits,” Samantha said. “That’s sort of how they keep people in what is functionally a dead end job that can't support you.”

Last month, Samantha put about $700 on a credit card, buying extra groceries and a laptop for her son so he could keep up with his schoolwork.

“I mean, I have no savings,” she said. “I have no savings at all. I have no cushion.”

And that’s why Samantha hopes that when this pandemic is over and parents go back to work, they’ll think that the people who take care of their kids all day deserve a raise.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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