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Low wages, no benefits, continue to plague Alberta’s child-care system, critics say

As Alberta continues to build out its spaces under the Canada-wide child-care system, there are increasing calls to improve compensation for educators who staff child-care centres.

In November 2021, the Alberta and federal governments signed an agreement aimed at bringing down the average fee parents pay for child care to $10 a day by 2026. The five-year deal included $3.8 billion in funding commitments from Ottawa.

Since then, the number of child-care spaces has expanded, but it has proven difficult for operators to find qualified staff to keep up with the demand.

Early childhood educators (ECEs), the majority of whom are women, earn wages close to or below what is considered the living wage in cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray.

Level 1 ECEs, who make up 45 per cent of Alberta’s child-care workforce, earn $19.43 an hour after the government’s top-up of $2.64. Many ECE positions do not include benefits, paid sick days or a pension plan. 

The low pay, and lack of opportunity for advancement, have either kept people from entering the field, or encouraged ECEs to leave. Experts say that needs to change to have the system work as intended where child-care centres are staffed by people trained in early childhood education. 

Christopher Smith, associate executive director of the Muttart Foundation, which works to improve the early education and care of young children, said attracting and keeping a qualified workforce requires investment in those workers.

“If you have those educators churning, turning over rapidly, if you have those educators being stressed in their environments or worrying about their own financial well-being, what kind of quality care are they going to be able to provide for children and families?” Smith said.

Right now, educators can receive the same compensation in the food service or retail industries without requiring extra education or experiencing the stress of caring for children, Smith said. 

“The ball is in the Alberta government’s court,” he said. “If you want to have a stable, secure, qualified workforce, then you need to invest in that work just as you would in any other sector of the economy.”

No wage grid for Alberta ECEs

A recent report from Child Care Now, a national advocacy group, says Alberta and Ontario are the only two provinces that haven’t enacted or committed to a wage grid. A grid lays out pay for each level of ECE which increase with each additional year of service.

The report also says that to help with retention, ECEs should receive non-salaried compensation such as benefits and pension plans.

Matt Jones, Alberta’s minister of jobs, economy and trade, is responsible for implementing the province’s joint agreement with the federal government.

Jones said his ministry is looking at the idea of a wage grid, but has not made a commitment to introducing one. He said hourly rates would have to be regionalized to take into account areas of Alberta with a higher cost of living, such as Fort McMurray. 

He said the province wants to provide funding to operators which allows them to run their child-care centres and attract and retain ECEs by providing them adequate salaries. 

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work for operator funding and it’s not going to work for ECE compensation because, as you can appreciate, each region of Alberta has a different labour market,” Jones said.

Jones said he has been in discussions with his federal counterpart, Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jenna Sudds, about possible tweaks to the current federal-provincial child-care agreement.

Jones could not provide a timeline for when Albertans would see the cost-control framework that has been in the works for a couple of years. 

A spokesperson for Sudds confirmed the talks are underway. Implementation of the Early Learning and Child Care Agreement between the federal and Alberta governments includes an increase in wages for child-care workers in addition to a reduction in parent fees, so it is up to the province to make that happen, she said. 

Nova Scotia benefits and pension

How wages can go up while fees go down is a question day cares and the government are grappling with.

Last year, the Alberta Association of Early Childhood Educators proposed a wage grid to the province. The grid started an entry level 1 ECE at a wage of $20.20 an hour, increasing to $24.85 over seven years. 

The salary ranges started at $42,016 and topped out at $51,688. The report said proposed wages would need to be updated as they were based on Alberta Labour information from 2019.

Amanda Rosset, chair of the Alberta Association of Early Childhood Educators, noted that the current wage system is supplemented by government top-ups. She said ECEs don’t view the top-up amount as a guaranteed wage, and the amounts are still too low in many areas of the province.

“We look at the living wage report, the average level of wages for ECE is is under in most regions throughout our province,” she said. 

Many ECEs don’t have access to benefits and pension plans. Some daycares are able to offer them to their employees. Others don’t.

Nova Scotia has introduced a pension and defined benefits plan for early childhood educators. ECEs can take the plans with them if they move to other child care centres in the province.

Smith, from the Muttart Foundation, said a similar plan in Alberta would help, as access to a pension and benefit plan isn’t consistent.

“Why would we think it’s OK to have one educator having no paid sick days a year, another educator having 10 [days], essentially doing the same job?” he said. “So we need to approach this on a much more public basis.”

More costs to the system

But there are questions about where the money is going to come from. 

Krystal Churcher, a daycare operator who is chair of the Alberta Association of Child Care Entrepreneurs, is a prominent critic of the national daycare plan.

She said Ottawa is giving provinces money to increase child-care spaces without a plan to ensure there are workers to staff them.

Churcher says she supports ECEs getting higher wages, and agrees that having a provincial benefits and pension could be advantageous in Alberta.

She is frustrated that a plan to increase workers and pay them better still isn’t in place three years into the federal plan, She asks where the money is coming from. 

“Are you going to reduce something in your centre to add higher wages for staff? And what is that going to be? Is that your food program? Is that your field trips?” Churcher said.

She said operators are getting only a three per cent increase to their funding this year, which doesn’t account for rising rental and utility costs.

“We can’t bleed out money any longer,” Churcher said.

“We need the either the province to step up and support educators, or the federal government to realize that while it sounds wonderful to keep throwing money into this program to create spaces, if we don’t have a solid workforce strategy to staff those spaces, they’re absolutely useless.”

Diana Batten, the NDP critic for children’s services, said the provincial government needs to step up. She said Jones can take action immediately if he wanted to.

“The UCP government has had a long time, years, to set up this wage grid,” she said. “It has not happened. There is no reason for this. The early childhood educators have been asking for it.”

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