It's time for child care for all - Des services de garde éducatifs pour tous

Robin has been working in Alberta as an early childhood educator (ECE) since 1999. During this time, Robin has observed many initiatives, but none quite like the federal government’s decision to spend $30 billion over the next five years on building a universal system of early learning and child care. 

The recent Canada-Alberta child care agreement sets out plans to significantly expand regulated early learning and childcare programs and increase access for families. However, creating more spaces and improving the quality of existing and new programs cannot happen without paying much more attention to ECEs, like Robin, who have dedicated their skilled labour to child development, and to making it possible for parents to work or study. 

“The top average wage for an ECE in Alberta with a diploma or a degree is $34,600 a year,” says Robin. “That’s the top wage for an educated professional. The living wage in Alberta is $18.00 per hour and ECEs make about $19.00-$20.00 per hour on average in the province. So, our living wage is not a good wage. A living wage just means you’re not living in poverty. It doesn’t mean you’re doing well, have savings, or can retire. It just means that you’re not going to the food bank. This is really sad for our sector.”

Robin notes that many ECEs are leaving jobs in early learning and child care entirely because of the low compensation and poor working conditions.

“Many ECEs have no vacation, no benefits, and no funding for their classrooms,” says Robin. She adds that the programs are so severely underfunded that ECEs often have to pay for their own classroom supplies.

In order to staff new programs, Robin says we must make early childhood education an attractive profession so that those in the field stay, and others train to join it.

“How in the world do you provide quality care when you have an inexperienced or unqualified workforce; how do you obtain a qualified workforce when you’re paying them just above the living wage?” Robin says. 

Between March 2020 and March 2021, Alberta lost 20% of its ECE workforce, according to a report by the CBC (Dubois, 2021). An already dire staffing shortage was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of adequate support offered to ECEs, Robin says.

“I actually left the sector at one point and tried to be an insurance agent because you can make better money. But, I was miserable and I didn’t enjoy the job. So, I ended up returning to child care. But, I ended up spending a lot of time in the recreation sector because recreation will pay you more and has a more flexible schedule. I decided to go back to child care because I knew it was important for me to do this, to work as an ECE— I value this. I have the support of my family that I could afford to do this. If I was on my own, there is no way I could have gone back to being an ECE in child care because there is no way I could have supported my kids or myself. If I’m being honest, I probably couldn’t support just myself on my wage,” Robins says.

Robin says a proper provincial wage scale reflecting the real value of the work performed by ECEs would be a good first step to addressing the low compensation that plagues the sector. 

In Alberta, ECEs may be certified as Level 1, 2, or 3 depending on their educational qualifications. Robin says the rates of pay for the different levels must be set in consultation with those who work in the sector and it must compensate ECEs for both qualifications and years of experience, similar to how elementary teachers are compensated. 

“Benefit packages must also be offered,” Robin says. “Most ECEs have no health benefits and pensions are almost non-existent.” 

Robin does not believe that Premier Jason Kenney or Education Minister Rebecca Schulz understand why ECE’s must be qualified, nor do they appreciate the value of the work ECEs perform.

“They need to talk to front-line ECEs about their working conditions and what they need. They can’t build a sustainable, quality system of early learning and child care without better understanding the situation,” says Robin. 

The situation is at a breaking point with immense pressure being placed upon those who remain, exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Robin.

“My centre, like all other centres, requires ECEs to perform additional cleaning duties. Especially in a Covid climate, you have to complete these duties in addition to your regular work with children in order to maintain the required program educator:child ratios.” says Robin. 

“No additional staff support is offered for this usually, the entire daycare team has non child related duties. ECEs are just expected to manage. And this is the problem— ECEs have been expected to manage on their own for far too long,” she explains.

Robin urges policy makers to act quickly to address the workforce challenges as they build the much-needed Canada-wide system of early learning and child care that includes recognizing ECEs as the qualified professionals that they are. 

“I want to be on the floor with the children. I don’t want to be forced to take another position for a higher wage. This is how you lose passionate ECEs.”