Child-care crisis could get novel fix with collective bargaining bill

The Alaska Capitol Building.

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One of the consistent economic problems we’ve heard throughout the course of the pandemic, from the early days of the shutdowns to the return to the office, is the lack child care. The long waitlists and high costs put a crunch on loads of families and resulted in some parents choosing to stay home rather than return to work, contributing among many other factors (like a living wage) to the general lack of workers that everyone was making noise about for a while. Frustratingly, the federal government has provided substantial ongoing money to the state but only a fraction has trickled out over the last year. As one testifier explained to the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, it’s a complete market failure: parents are faced with high bills and long wait lists, employees aren’t getting paid enough and are turning over quickly, and business owners are pulled between both, struggling to keep employees on the payroll and prices low enough to keep families coming through the door.

One provider testified that most families put 10-20% of their income towards child care and still child care providers are unable to pay decent wages. Another said they’re frequently one of the first calls when a family finds out they’re expecting because waitlists are just that long.

Rep. Zack Fields has entered with an interesting idea to this end in House Bill 149, which was heard in the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

It would create the option for what’s called sectorial bargaining, essentially the unionization of an entire industry, that would allow it to negotiate with the state over how those federal grant dollars are put to use. An interesting wrinkle that was brought up during the hearing is that the National Labor Relations Act specifically prohibits both domestic workers and agricultural workers from unionizing under that legislation due to Dixiecrat opposition (racism), leaving the matter to the states.

The bill doesn’t prescribe how the money is spent and, instead, sets up a system where child care providers and their employees can vote to essentially form a union. The thinking is they’d be able to work together to steer resources, which are already available in grant money that’s been sitting around, to maximize the benefit to the workers, the businesses and families.

Of course, it only matters if you think parents (specifically mothers) should be able to have a job other than being a parent.

The idea ran into fierce opposition from extreme-right Rep. Ben Carpenter, who worried that the legislation would be “promoting” child care over stay-at-home parents. He said the solution for child care should be to divert the money to the families with a stay-at-home parent and questioned the constitutionality of such a measure in its entirety. Where does the Alaska Constitution specifically say that it can be involved in improving the child care system, he demanded to know.

“You’re talking about a long-term cultural impact here across the sector,” he said. “Is this promoting that there’s value in other people raising our children as opposed to raising their own children?”

It’s important note that Carpenter isn’t alone in holding this attitude about child care. On a hearing on this bill last year, Rep. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, espoused lengthily about how “the ultimate value of child care is if a mother can raise a child.” Since his mother brought him to work as a child, he said, then it’s good for today.

Rep. Fields said the legislation was making no value call on parenting, but simply trying to make it easier for families to work. There’s not exactly an abundance of jobs out there that can support a family, he said.

“I guess it’s my view that every parent should be able to make their choice on how they raise their children,” he said.

As for this apparent grand conspiracy about state-subsidized child care, Blue Shibler, of the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children, said no one is trying to raise anyone else’s kids.

“Child-care providers aren’t trying to raise other people’s children,” she said during testimony. “We are partnering with working families to help children get their developmental needs met in high-quality environments.”

She added that the current state of the child-care industry is a market failure and that market failures like this require government intervention. Shibler was one of several child care providers to testify to the committee in support of the legislation.

Follow the thread: House Finance hears a potentially impactful child care bill.

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