A bill proposes the creation of a two-year pilot program in a bid to attract more qualified child care professionals in the state.

Members of the Keiki Caucus within the Hawaii Legislature are hoping to help better retain child care workers by offering a new subsidy program for them. 

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This two-year pilot program, created via House Bill 547, would specifically boost pay for those who work with infants and toddlers.

If passed, the measure would allow child care centers to apply for the subsidy to increase their staff’s wages. When requesting the subsidy amount, applicants must state how much each child care worker would receive if the subsidy is awarded.

The bill requires approved recipients to raise the pay of their workers to at least $16 an hour, which is more than the current median pay for child care workers, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Most working families have a strong need for child care, but the low salary level has depleted the amount of qualified child care workers. 

In submitted testimony for the bill, former family child care worker Malia Tsuchiya said she wasn’t able to continue working directly in the field due to the low pay. She said many of her colleagues left as well because of the low pay. 

“I also have a 2-year-old son who is on a two-year waiting list for a quality school,” wrote Tsuchiya, who also is affiliated with the Hawaii Early Education Development Association. “Twenty percent of our workforce has left the field in the last two years.”

The measure now goes to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will try to resolve their differences.

Kids play in the Hawaii Childrens Discovery Center's day care area.
Low pay has contributed to a dearth of child care workers. A bill subsidizing their compensation aims to change that. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Rep. Lisa Marten, a co-convener of the Keiki Caucus, said child care workers in the state are significantly underpaid.

“It is so stressful for parents if they can’t find a place to take care of their infant or toddler and they can’t get to work,” Marten said. “This allows not only child care providers to keep their jobs, but this allows parents to keep their jobs.” 

Hawaii had an estimated 1,280 (non-administrative) child care workers, with Kauai County having as few as 70, according to the 2021 Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics report for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. These workers earned on average $14 an hour, with an annual income of about $29,000. 

Jason Hartwick, who has more than 20 years of experience in child care, said he has seen many child care workers choose different career paths because of the low compensation in the field. He added that this turnover of workers causes regular staffing issues at the Tutu and Me Traveling Preschool in Honolulu, where he works.

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Even though his nonprofit isn’t able to qualify for the subsidy, since they serve older children, Hartwick said he supports the bill and thinks it is a step in the right direction. 

“I am hoping this subsidy will help a good portion of the workforce stay in the field and not go off to something that might be a little easier and get more pay,” Hartwick said.

During his time in the child care sector, Hartwick said there has been a strong push for child care workers to pursue higher education, but the payscale has remained stagnant despite the higher qualifications.

“You are asking a workforce, somebody who is already working 40-plus hours a week, to invest time and energy into further schooling to advance yourself in some way for professional standards,” Hartwick said, “but you aren’t necessarily going to get a financial advancement.”

Even though he finds the low pay for child care workers discouraging, Hartwick said he continues to work in the field because he knows he is making a difference in the lives of the families he serves.

“We joke around, and we always say, ‘We do it for the hugs,'” he said.

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