Some care workers see sharp pay. They work to endure.

Sandra Rosales’ voice takes on a soft note as she recalls the notes she received from the two girls she cared for in Brooklyn. “If I had to describe you in one word, it would be loving,” one of her nannies, now 9, wrote to Ms. Rosales last year. “Thank you for encouraging me to be brave.”

Mrs. Rosales spent six years with them, working 10 hours a day and five days a week. They were a family. Until they were.

When Ms. Rosales, 54, received Covid in December 2020, the family she works for told her she would not continue to pay her while she was ill.

Something snapped at her that month as she lay in her Queens apartment with a temperature that rose to 105 degrees. “I love these children,” she said. But, she added, “when this situation happened, I said to myself, ‘I’m not part of this family.’

The pandemic has torn the seams of the long-untied childcare sector. The staff who cared for them faced new risks to their safety and had nothing to protect them. Many have become disillusioned with working conditions – shaped by a culture that experts say devalues ​​homework, as it is done mainly by colored women – and are looking for safer jobs and higher wages.

The childcare sector has shrunk, from more than one million people classified as childcare workers at the end of 2019 to 913,000 at the end of 2021, according to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics . In children’s centers, low wages and exhaustion were the leading reasons why employers lost staff. As of January, more than half of families in the country were reporting problems finding childcare, and job vacancies in the Indeed sector had increased by 8 percent since 2019.

Like many other traditionally low-paid workers, some childcare workers have seen an increase in their wages and benefits as a result of labor shortages. The average hourly wage for childcare workers in 2021 is $ 13.22, compared to $ 11.65 in 2019 and $ 12.24 in 2020.

But to make the fleeting victories they have seen sustainable, workers are finding ways to organize.

For families who have always struggled to find and afford care, last year’s shortage of workers in the industry and the lack of openings in care centers exacerbated the challenge, forcing many parents – especially mothers – to quit their jobs so they could watch. your children.

Domestic workers fell ill and few had health care or sick leave. If they have been fired, they often cannot receive unemployment benefits. Most estimates show that 90 percent of nannies nationwide are paid for by books.

“The pandemic has hit the pre-existing childcare crisis,” said Emily Diels, founder of the Seattle Child Care Network, which includes 35,000 nannies. “This is a multi-layered crisis situation. It’s just complete chaos. “

Scattered bright spots emerged from the crisis for caregivers and families who rely on their help. A number of babysitting organizations – including Adventure Nannies and Noan’s Nannies, who have worked with tens of thousands of babysitters – report that average wages have risen by up to $ 10 an hour since the pandemic, a jump they attribute to tightening job supply. hand, with paid leave and proposals for pension plans, which are also increasing for some workers.

HomeWork Solutions, one of the largest domestic workers’ organizations in the country, said it had seen a roughly double-digit increase in the proportion of families who contacted it who wanted to pay their babysitters for books, allowing babysitters to have right to unemployment benefits. The last two years have also led families to look for more flexible childcare arrangements, such as babysitting shares, which agencies say often mean higher wages and more formalized employment arrangements.

But childcare during the telecommuting era has become more complex, with teleworked parents sometimes disrupting routines and attempts to discipline children. Ms. Rosales, for example, said she was always careful to give the children she looked after yogurt in the afternoon instead of sweet snacks to keep them from falling asleep. But when they ran to their parents, they sometimes gave them ice cream, she said.

Home caregivers at the Reddit Babysitting Forum, r / banny, shared micro-management accounts from employers. In interviews, some nannies said they were reprimanded for not preventing a child from interrupting a parent meeting at Zoom.

And some said their attempts to call for higher wages and better conditions were overshadowed by the idea that care work should be “labor of love” driven by emotional currency.

“I have to keep reminding myself, ‘Don’t get too emotional,'” said Stephanie Felzenberg, a New Jersey babysitter who lost her job at the start of the pandemic, in part because her parents hired her to start working from home. “It’s not criticizing the family to ask for a raise.”

Some caregivers hoped the pandemic would push the real value of their work, as the unemployment rate for mothers with babies and young children nearly doubled in 2020. Instead, most found work more precarious. And while wages appear to be rising, carers say not everyone is reaping the benefits. Distributed unevenly, profits are hardly enough to compensate for decades of miserable wages and ill-treatment, workers say.

“It’s 10 steps back and a few steps forward,” said Stacy Kono, executive director of Hand in Hand, a national network of local employers.

The turmoil in the sector over the past two years has inspired many domestic and child workers – who were largely isolated from each other even before the pandemic – to look for ways to organize collectively.

The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance doubled the number of people involved in its chapters and initiatives and distributed $ 30 million to workers for emergency cash payments. Family care workers working as licensed providers also organized: About 40,000 of them in California won their union in 2020 and then their first contract in 2021, a joint effort of AFSCME / UDW and the International Union of service employees, local 99 and 521. The contract included a salary increase of 15 percent on average.

Another bright spot, child care providers said, is the increase in resources supporting unconventional care arrangements. In late 2020, Ms. Diels’ organization in Seattle heard dozens of families interested in babysitting, so her team created a set of babysitting sharing tools that included tips on how to use direct deposits to avoid late payments and coordinate which family will deliver personal protective equipment. The organization’s Facebook group for families who want to share care tripled during the pandemic to include 3,500 people.

When families share childcare, Ms. Diels added, they usually pay their nannies more. Some families have also renegotiated contracts so that their nannies can take their own children to work.

Neighborhood organizations have also expanded, making official ties between workers who previously only crossed paths at school. The Carroll Gardens Nanny Association grew to 5,000 domestic workers out of 300 during the pandemic and expanded from its Brooklyn base to include Long Island and New Jersey.

Ms. Rosales joined the group years ago after meeting its founder on the street near her employer’s home. Ms. Rosales is undocumented, but decided that organizing other domestic workers was worth the risk, she said, especially after spending weeks sick without pay, feeling guilty for not being able to send checks home to her own son. and a daughter in Guatemala.

On a recent Wednesday night, a group of babysitters in New York, including Ms. Rosales, gathered at Zoom with local politicians and employers to plan months of organizing, including convincing more families in New York to use employment agreements.

“Your children are looking at you,” said Tatiana Bezhar, organizer of the caring parents. “They will be better people if they see that you treat people with respect.

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