These days it costs $16 for a packet of chicken big enough to feed Alma Ortiz’s family. It’s a big jump from what she’s used to, and she has a hard time being able to afford it.
Ortiz is a single mom and early childhood teacher for Youth Development Inc., a Head Start program in Albuquerque. Her children also attend school at YDI.
Last year when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced $3 raises for early childhood educators Ortiz and her colleagues were excited to see more money in their paychecks.
“A raise would help me with my bills, my mortgage and food for my kids,” Ortiz said in Spanish. “I’m a single mom, so that money would help us be better fed.”
Ortiz heard other educators at different programs outside YDI started getting their raises from the governor’s initiative. The extra money was not making its way to Ortiz, so she and her colleagues reached out to their bosses at YDI.
It turns out, because Head Start is a federal program that receives specific funding for its salaries, the employees at YDI were not eligible for the $3 provided by the executive initiative.
Teachers and staff at YDI said management told them they are working on a solution to the problem, but some employees said they are “frustrated” by a “lack of communication.”
Employees protested at a YDI shareholders meeting on Feb. 11 where they tried to encourage leadership to meet with the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Child Care Department, and its Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky.
The workers said they were not allowed to speak until the meeting was over. After a couple of hours in the meeting – and one hour waiting outside before it began – many had to leave to attend to other obligations, employees said. The YDI staffers seeking higher hourly wages who spoke with Source New Mexico expressed that they felt silenced.
“It was like they didn’t have much empathy for us,” Ortiz said.
YDI leadership said in a statement that it’s already met “on several occasions” with employees to explain why they are not eligible and have already met with Groginsky to discuss alternate funding streams.
“Youth Development, Inc. is committed to increasing staff salaries for early childcare educators and our support staff,” the statement read. “The guiding principle we all agree on is that our wonderful staff deserve salary increases and we are committed to that end.”
YDI did not share any specific plans about how they would increase wages for the hourly employees.
As for the $3 they don’t qualify for, New Mexico is funding those raises through a grant called Competitive Pay for Professionals, a $77 million federal program funded by the American Rescue Plan Act
According to the American Rescue Plan guidelines for child care funding, salary increases and other funding are not covered for public pre-kindergarten programs, Head Start and Early Head Start because they “typically operate under different program rules and funding structures than child care.”
Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson with the governor’s said the administration would work at the federal level to fund programs that did not qualify under those orders. Hayden did not give any specific details about how they would move forward with those plans.
“Unfortunately, we are limited by federal funding restrictions in what we can do to directly impact wages for educators working in federal education programs,” she said. ”
When the governor made the announcement about the $3 raises in a press release on Oct. 26, 2022, she assigned the early childhood education department to handle requests for raising staff wages.
According to the department’s spokesperson Micah McCoy, leadership knew at the time there were federal restrictions that would’ve prevented people like the workers at YDI from getting the bump in pay.
For some Head Start employees, it’s not just about the $3 raises. It’s about being fairly compensated for their work. Felicitas Torres-Mesa, a head cook at a YDI facility, said she’s in charge of making several meals a day, filling out paperwork and even picking up food sometimes.
She makes a little more than $14.50 an hour. Cooking is her passion, she said, but her passion can’t help her pay the bills.
“The real, real truth is we’re being exploited,” Torres-Mesa said in Spanish. “Who is going to come work here when they can go to McDonald’s and make more and not have to do any paperwork?”
It wasn’t always this way for her. When she first started 15 years ago, she lived comfortably. Now she has to ask for money to help with her rent, bills and medical care.
“If I had more money, I wouldn’t go to sleep at night wondering how I’m going to make it the next day,” Torres-Mesa said.
Many of her co-workers are afraid to speak out. She isn’t anymore.
“I have people over 60 tell me, ‘It’s too late for me to start over,’” Torres-Mesa said. “They don’t want to get fired. So I feel like I have to stand up for them. I have to speak up.”
Low wages is one of the driving factors of the child care worker shortage in the U.S.
According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley, the average child care employee salary is $22,290 – that’s $2,310 below the federal poverty line.
While federal lawmakers are trying to redirect money for professional development, those gains are lost as long as low pay drives qualified educators out of the field, the center said.
Vanessa Rogers, an early childhood educator at YDI, doesn’t want to leave. She wants to make YDI “the best place ever to work.” She believes the infants in her care have taught her more than she could ever teach them and she wants her profession to be valued for its contributions to society.
“We’re not valued for the future we’re rearing. We rear doctors, lawyers, scientists – they all had teachers,” Rogers said. “We’re not viewed as professionals anymore. That hurts my heart.”
Rogers said that employees do get raises, but they are based on percentage. That means the lowest-paid employees get the smallest raises and turnover is high among early educators.
Recently, her 14-year-old granddaughter got a job in customer service and is now making more money than her.
Meanwhile, YDI is considering adding more classrooms, Rogers said, but it is still struggling to fill the classrooms it has now with staff.
Torres-Mesa is not surprised by this.
“It’s the same thing every year,” Torres-Mesa said. “They say they’re doing so well and have all this money that they have to spend, but we never see it.”
Rogers encouraged her colleagues to “stand alongside” those leading the charge for higher pay even if they are too afraid to speak.
A group of educators and staff at YDI is rallying together to schedule a meeting with Groginsky because some say they feel left in the dark and need to take matters into their own hands.
“How do we even know you’re working on these things if you aren’t talking to us?” Rogers said of YDI. “I understand that change takes time, but you’ve got to be transparent.”
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