This story is part of a series, published in The Reader and on omahajobs.com, which spotlights the experiences of low-income, working families in Omaha. This article is also part of a larger series about inequity in Omaha, titled “(DIS)Invested.”
When Erika Felt signed child care workers’ paperwork for public benefits, she felt like garbage. As director of a local child care center, Felt didn’t set workers’ $9.25/hour wages — that was up to the owner. But she still felt awful, staring down what she calls the “problem of poverty” among those teaching Nebraska’s youngest children.
“It’s hard to watch people not get paid anything but do one of the most important jobs,” said Felt, who left the center and now runs an in-home child care, The Playschool House.
It especially stung because Felt, who’s worked in child care for more than two decades, was once in a similar situation. Years before, she provided subsidized child care to families while she was on public benefits to feed, clothe and house herself and her children. To eventually stay off assistance, Felt worked 60 to 75 hours each week. That took a personal toll in numerous ways.
“It took me two years to take my mother’s ashes to [my hometown] to scatter them because I couldn’t afford to go,” Felt said.
Poverty statistics among Nebraska child care workers are staggering. Twenty-seven percent of in-home providers and 20% of center staff receive public assistance, according to a January 2020 report by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute (“Elevating Nebraska’s Early Childhood Workforce”). The same report states the average annual pay for early childhood professionals is $25,980 for those providing in-home care and $18,706 for center-based providers. And in the months after COVID-19 hit, one in four providers saw their income drop more than 50%.
Felt doesn’t think society views child care as a true career.
“If it’s a woman taking care of kids, that’s not [considered] work,” Felt said. “There’s this myth of ‘big mama on the block,’ that we live to sacrifice ourselves for others while being a bottomless resource for the community. We’re taken for granted.”
The idea that child care is not real work couldn’t be further from reality. Felt said running an in-home child care like her Playschool House means being a well-trained teacher — who often spends more waking hours with children than their own families — and a business owner.
And child care, whether in-home or in a center, is an expensive business.
“My wages [go back into the child care] to cover electricity, water, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, groceries, curriculum enhancements, trainings, licensing fees,” said Felt, who’s passed up three opportunities to open a child care center (as opposed to running her in-home business). Between overhead, furnishing and insurance, she knows she won’t have enough money left to pay staff a living wage.
Felt said Nebraska providers who offer state-subsidized child care are in a particularly tough spot, since Nebraska offers limited compensation for providers when children are absent. If siblings have the flu for two weeks and can’t attend day care, for example, their provider can only bill up to five absent days per child each month, so they’re out one week’s wages. In April 2020, soon after COVID hit, the governor signed an executive order temporarily letting providers bill an unlimited number of absent days every month — but it’s since expired.
“For 20 years I’ve yelled about how Nebraska is behind the majority of states in how they pay providers for subsidized child care,” said Felt, who believes legislation making this a permanent change would not only give child care workers a pay boost, but also encourage more providers to offer subsidized child care.
Despite it all, Felt adores her career. She loves how children beam with pride and delight when they master a new skill. Switching careers, Felt said, would be like denying an artist their medium. She just wishes her career was recognized as bona fide — and essential — work that deserves adequate compensation.
“I’ll work [in child care] until I’m 70-something, Lord willing,” Felt said. “This is my passion. But child care providers should not be broke.”
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).