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Illinois’ home-based child care providers often make minimum wage — or less

A Black woman embraces a young child.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang
Bridgett Vance, a home-based daycare provider in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood, comforts a child. Vance is one of more than 15,000 home-based daycare providers in Illinois’ Child Care Assistance Program negotiating a contract with the state over pay and benefits.

CHICAGO — On any given weekday at Lorissa Learning Lab, owner 57-year-old Bridgett Vance can be found comforting a crying toddler, pulling out a cot for a sleeping child or preparing lunch for the little ones.

The home-based daycare, located in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and has been operating for more than 25 years. Vance’s bright living room is stocked with toys and books, and its walls are covered with artwork by the children.

Vance, whose two daughters grew up at the daycare, is passionate about teaching young tots.

“[Children] are precious, and they’re a gift from God,” Vance said. “I just felt like if I was at the beginning of [their] developmental process, I could help more.”

Despite her love for the job, Vance said she has struggled with keeping the business afloat over the years. She has had to take side jobs and use credit cards to make ends meet. After paying utilities, staff, taxes and other expenses, she said she only takes home a couple of thousand dollars monthly.

“You can actually get public assistance with that amount,” she said, adding she has no retirement or pension plan in place. “I have been saving a little bit, but it’s sort of hard to save.”

Vance is one of more than 15,000 home-based daycare providers in Illinois’ Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which provides free or affordable child care for low-income families throughout the state.

Represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the providers are currently in contract negotiations with the state over retirement benefits, training, and most importantly, pay — in the form of the state’s rates per child, which range between around $22 to $48 a day per child, depending on license status, geographic location and the child’s age.

Vance and others say after accounting for expenses, these caretakers who change diapers, read books and play with preschoolers on a daily basis make close to — or less than — minimum wage. And although workers have previously asked for a contract that includes a state-funded retirement program like the one California is launching for its family child care providers, there is no such plan in place in Illinois.

A spokesperson for the state said contract talks are pending but had no further comment on the negotiations, which have been ongoing since June 2023.

SEIU’s Child Care Division Director Brynn Seibert said if Illinois is trying to help struggling parents, it has to do right by the providers who look after their children every day.

“The child care workforce is really the workforce behind the workforce,” Seibert said.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Human Services, the number of licensed home-based child care providers in the state decreased between 2016 and 2022 from 8,302 to 5,872 — a decline of 29%.

State data also show there has been a decline in license-exempt providers — relatives, family friends or neighbors who take care of children at home and are paid by CCAP. They, too, are part of the group negotiating the contract.

Seibert said many of the child care providers in her union are exiting the field for better-paying retail and warehouse jobs, leaving working families in a lurch.

“Our child care workforce is in crisis … and it’s really impacting families’ ability to find and keep the child care that they need,” Seibert said.

Early childhood education experts say the child care workforce as a whole is in crisis, but special attention needs to be given to home-based providers because they often cater to lower-income families, offering longer hours, closer locations and care that is set apart from traditional models.

Mariana Souto-Manning — president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood education and development — said home-based child care providers give “culturally affirming care … the kinds of interactions and linguistic responsiveness, the kind of food, the kinds of community connections, and most of all, the belief in the brilliance of children of color.”

Souto-Manning said increasing wages and providing benefits for these child care professionals would help address inequality — for families and providers alike.

“To right wrongs, to make sure that we are answerable for a historical disinvestment, we need to really think about removing barriers to access to child care that meet family’s needs,” she said.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is the Race, Class and Communities Reporter at WBEZ in Chicago.