Pandemic Panic and Low Pay in Childcare

by

Deborah Reynolds

13th June 2020

The precariousness of life working in Childcare has been amplified by the global pandemic that hit Ireland in March 2020. We've built the momentum for change, we need to keep working together to achieve it.

Money anxiety

The 12th of March is a memory that without doubt, will stay with me forever. The initial disbelief about the immediate closure of childcare and schools because of COVID19 was quickly replaced by panic and uncertainty. Those feelings were then replayed a week later when my second job closed indefinitely.

Losing a job is like a swift thump to the chest that leaves you breathless, you feel helpless. Then fear takes hold, ‘What am I going to do?’ ‘How am I going to cope?’. Anxiety is cruel and it’s doubly difficult to cope with when there are no comforts available, there’s only pandemic panic.

Feelings of worry around money are the norm for me, specifically anxiety around the lack of it. The constant sense of insecurity when your pay doesn’t cover the essentials like rent, utilities, food shop, phone, or clothes is part of my life. Every week is tight, there’s no leeway and you try not to catastrophise about unexpected expenses, but you do and it adds to your stress. It sometimes feels like being anxious about money is inbuilt in my contract as a low paid worker.

Credit where credit is due

The initial continuation of the childcare schemes to cover pay after the COVID19 closure was very welcome. Knowing that money would be there every week to keep things going provided breathing space. The switchover from the schemes to the wage subsidy created some difficulties, but to know that pay was secure until the end of June gave me an overwhelming sense of relief.

Credit where credit is due, Minister Zappone secured 100% of wages and ensured the future of the service I work in, with the overheads subsidy. The wage subsidy wasn’t a perfect solution for everyone, but at least the union movement secured the €350 PUP payment.

I have deep empathy with anyone who has now found themselves overwhelmed with anxiety around money; because despite the fact that I have 100% wages for the COVID19 closure, I still earn €8,000 less per year than what’s considered a living wage in Ireland.

Poverty pay and social welfare

When I think for too long about the contradiction between the importance of the work I do and how little I get paid, I get massively frustrated. After holding down two jobs for over a decade and getting my degree at night, why do I only earn €17,000 a year? My pay is so low that I need social welfare assistance with housing, health, and the summer dole when playschool closes.

Negative feelings about your self worth can creep in because of societal perceptions around social welfare. Suggestions that you’re lazy and good for nothing, that you’re milking the system; when in reality you’re just trying to keep things ticking over, trying to survive.

Channeling frustration into activism

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs often comes to mind when I reflect on pay in childcare. Our aim is for children to reach their potential by supporting their needs. It’s jarring when I look at my bank balance and know my basic needs aren’t being met.

On the 5th of February, 2020, 30,000 people stood on the streets of Dublin looking for better pay, perhaps a culmination of the frustration that our collective basic needs aren’t being met. We shouted for a decent wage for childcare professionals, it’s the least we deserve, if for nothing else to just get a break from worrying about money.

The cycle of emotions that dominate when you’re on low pay are anger, frustration, worry, stress ,and fatigue. Sometimes those feelings can manifest negatively, there’s a sense of hopelessness and a feeling like nothing will ever change.

What I’ve learned to do (what I’ve had to do for my own wellbeing) is to channel those feelings into activism; getting involved, standing up for myself, and trying to make a difference. In the words of Shirley Chisholm, ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the side-lines whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.’

Low pay, poverty and social inequality

A pandemic statistic that has been bandied around and used to demean low paid workers is the fact that there are 200,000 people better off on the €350 COVID19 payment. That means one out of every twelve working people are struggling to make ends meet on low pay, that’s a shocking thing to hear but it’s not surprising.

Approximately 10,000 people from that group are our childcare colleagues, earning poverty pay. We are the lowest paid sector in the country and we are living with the devastating consequences of the normalisation of poverty and social inequality in Ireland.

There’s even a new name for the class of worker we are, Guy Standing calls us The Precariat, we are defined by insecurity and unpredictability, and it’s a horrible way to live.

Collective action needed for change

Prior to the COVID19 pandemic, we had built great momentum for change in childcare. It was interrupted, but the fight for decent pay and increased investment shouldn’t stop. Paolo Freire would suggest that the only way to achieve the transformational change we need is to work, reflect, and act as a collective.

Working as a collective is at the root of trade unionism. I firmly believe that the only way to create change in childcare is through unionising. Look at our education peers in Primary and Secondary schools; they drive change, forge their professional identity and create good pay and conditions by acting as a collective with their unions. They have power, and that power comes from their 90%+ strong union membership.

Everyone should be an activist

An aspect of the pandemic response that I feel has flown under the radar is that the wage subsidy childcare scheme is the first policy decision from the DCYA that has recognised the importance of our workforce and how crucial our work is to the economy. That gives me a sense of hope, it’s something to build on.

Activism is key to building for the future, we should all be activists, everyone needs to be involved. All assistants and room leaders from every baby, wobbler, toddler, preschool, and afterschool room in Ireland are needed, along with managers and owners too.

Being an activist can be as simple as joining the union to create power in numbers.

President Michael D. Higgins gave an interview on The Late Late Show recently, he declared that people shouldn’t just work to survive, we should work to flourish. It would be my hope that in time everyone in our sector could flourish, and that they wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity and inequality of low pay anymore.

Deborah Reynolds has been an *Early Years Teacher for the past 13 years in Co. Galway. Deborah has achieved qualifications in Fine Art, Early Years Care and Education, Forest School, LINC and Trade Union Studies. She would love to pursue a postgraduate qualification in the near future. Deborah has previously written for ECI’s Scéalta blog and presented at the Markievicz/Partridge summer school 2019. Deborah has been an activist/committee member for the Big Start Campaign since 2016 and she took part in organising the Together for Early Years protest in February 2020. * I have always referred to the sector I work in as Childcare (I’m open to a sector led renaming). The name I have chosen for my own professional identity is Early Years Teacher.