Rethinking Child Care Workforce Compensation to Pay These Heroes for the Essential Work They Do

There are many lessons learned from our ongoing experience with COVID-19, which continue to evolve to best promote the health and safety of North Carolina residents. One key take-away is the important role that child care plays as an essential service – to support essential personnel during our stay-at-home period and now to support both essential personnel and parents returning to work as the North Carolina economic recovery begins.

Pre-COVID, child care teaching staff throughout North Carolina earned about $10.97 per hour on average. Infant and toddler staff earned less – about $10 per hour.[1] Child care teaching staff who left the field reported pay as the number one reason for leaving their jobs.[2] The low pay of child care personnel is not new news. The Child Care Services Association has long documented the compensation challenges within the field through a series of reports over the last two decades.[3] But, what is new is the recent recognition of the need to compensate child care teaching staff better as front-line workers supporting all other workforces (as well as the healthy development of children).

In April, the NC Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) recognized the importance of the child care workforce and paid bonuses of $950 each per month for full-time teaching staff and $525 each per month for non-teaching staff.[4] Part-time employees received prorated amounts related to their hours.[5] Bonus payments were made for staff working onsite in April and May but ended in June.[6]  Programs that re-opened in May were eligible for prorated bonus payments.[7]

The intent of increasing compensation was to boost employee retention (and availability) at a time when child care was needed to support essential personnel. It was also a form of “hazard” pay recognizing that the likelihood of potential exposure to COVID-19 was greater for these workers. While it took a pandemic to increase compensation for the child care workforce, the implications are clear:

  • Child care pay is too low to retain the workforce to staff the needed supply of child care
  • As front-line workers, the child care workforce is more at risk of COVID exposure
  • Child care workers should be better compensated for the jobs that they perform

While many North Carolina businesses have re-opened, the situation on the ground for child care workers hasn’t changed. Parents returning to the workforce will need access to child care. The supply of child care depends on a stable and qualified child care workforce. There is no vaccine that has yet been approved and, therefore, child care workers remain on the front-lines at greater risk of COVID exposure (despite best efforts to comply with new health and safety requirements).

In the short-term, at a minimum, the bonus funding for child care workers should continue until there is an approved vaccine and North Carolina residents have been inoculated. They are heroes. The child care workforce is supporting all other workforces to ensure that North Carolina provides a needed onramp for parents to return to work. In the long-term, it’s time to rethink child care compensation, particularly for teaching staff who should be paid in a manner aligned with their credentials and experience.

Our experience with COVID offers all of us in the early childhood community an opportunity to re-envision child care in a post-COVID period. To say that the old system didn’t work well would be an understatement. Child care workers earned low wages, nearly half relied on some form of public assistance to support their families, and turnover was high.[8] I wrote a blog about child care compensation last November

Post-COVID, we should bring child care back better. We should use the interim period until a vaccine is developed and widely-used to identify ways to finance a high-quality child care system that appropriately pays the child care workforce aligned with achieved credentials or degrees in early childhood education such as an AA or BA in early childhood education or an infant/toddler certification.

Over the past few years, a group of early childhood advocates, service providers and state policymakers worked collaboratively to develop a recommended wage scale to better support child care teachers.[9] The challenge is to find a way to pay for it. Child care providers cannot be mandated to pay significantly higher wages, particularly at a time when their current economic model is in danger of collapse. Parents can’t pay more given the difficulty in affording current child care prices let alone the large increase in unemployment.

It is time to look at new ways to fund a child care wage scale. Everyone has a stake in the child care supply, which includes the workforce – whether individuals have a child or not. As witnessed during the state shutdown, child care is an essential service much like roads and bridges.  We all depend on parents with young children who are hospital workers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, etc. whether or not each one of us has a child. And, therefore, we all depend on child care, which is more clear now given our experience with COVID.

Some of the options that could be considered involve Congress such as allocating funding to states to better pay the child care workforce. Other options involve the State Legislature considering ways to provide a publicly-funded wage scale for child care workers through the creation of new revenue strategies such as a state refundable workforce tax credit linked to professional development achievements or a publicly funded system of compensating early educators that could be funded through a state payroll surtax.

For example, employers and employees currently pay 6.2 percent of earnings up to $137,700, which is adjusted annually based on average wage growth. An increase of 0.5 percent could be added to the current tax (dedicated to a state child care workforce compensation fund). Another related strategy could be simply lifting the wage cap (e.g., to $1 million in income) with the increased revenue dedicated to a state child care workforce compensation fund. 

North Carolina is a leader in early childhood education. States often to look to us for innovative ideas. If a publicly-funded child care compensation strategy were to be developed, the collateral benefit would be a reduction in the cost of child care for families.

For example, currently the cost of personnel comprises about 70 percent of the typical operating budget for child care programs. If teaching staff were paid from a publicly-funded initiative, the fixed costs remaining for child care program operators would be significantly reduced, which means the cost of child care could be made more affordable for N.C. families – which translates to increased workforce participation. In this way, through financing innovation, we could address the top two challenges with child care: (1) low compensation for the workforce and (2) affordability for families.

It’s time to apply the lessons learned from COVID to potential solutions that serve our communities better – the child care workforce, all other workforces that depend on child care, children, working parents and employers. We can’t go back to the past that didn’t work well for anyone. Let’s roll up our sleeves and schedule some Zoom meetings to begin the conversation.


[1] Collaborating for Change in Compensation, NC Strategies.

[2] Child Care Services Association, Leaving the Classroom: Addressing the Crisis of NC’s Early Childhood Educator Turnover, February 2020.

[3] Child Care Services Association workforce compensation studies.

[4] NC Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE), COVID-19 Child Care Payment Policies.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Child Care Services Association, 2015 North Carolina Child Care Workforce Report.

[9] Collaborating for Change in Compensation, NC Strategies.