Dawn Oâ€™Neal teaches preschoolers how to count, tenderly introducing young minds to basic arithmetic at her daycare center in Atlanta. But on Tuesday, she and fellow childcare workers will gather outside the classroom, in the streets, to educate politicians about why, for all the work they put into raising the nationâ€™s children, their wages still donâ€™t add up.
While she works to make her classroom environment as carefree as possible for kids, grown-up stresses surround them. In a sector where the cost of care is rising yet wages have stagnated for over a decade, she knows that, after more than 15 years in the field and still earning just $8.50 an hour, neither her family nor those of her students are getting what they deserve.
â€œWeâ€™re struggling,â€ Oâ€™Neal says. â€œWeâ€™re taking care of other kids all day long, and then when we come home we canâ€™t even take care of our kids.â€ Sometimes, when parents canâ€™t afford the fee, she adds, the center will take their children anyway, just so they can work. â€œItâ€™s hard on the teachers, and itâ€™s hard on the parents,â€ she says.
Tuesdayâ€™s protests in Atlanta and hundreds of other cities will launch the Fight for $15â€™s yearlong campaign leading up to Election Day. The SEIU-backed movement to press nationwide demands for a living wage and a union, now includes their demand as voters, that politicians commit to raising pay and working conditions.
Earning typical hourly wages ofÂ about $10.30, childcare workers earn some 40 percent less than the nationwide median wage, well below typical wage range in comparable professions, according to the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI). About one in seven childcare workers lives below the official poverty line. In many regions, preschool and childcare workers earn a fraction of whatâ€™s required for a minimally decent standard of living. In Atlanta, childcare workers like Oâ€™Neal may earn just short of what is needed to support a local family of one.
But Oâ€™Neal proudly raised four kids as a childcare worker. She manages costs by residing in housing about two hours away from the affluent neighborhood where she teaches. She staggers bills to help make rent and purchase groceries. Since the educational requirements for her field are rising, Oâ€™Neal needs a full degree in childcare, instead of her current associateâ€™s credential, to move up from being an assistant teacher to a higher-paid position heading her own classroom. But she can barely afford the gas for her daily commute, much less the tuition sheâ€™d need for another degree.