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'It shouldn't exist': State-funded program supplements child care employee pay but it's not enough

Teachers say they aren't getting paid well. And the business model means facilities struggle to stay open, while parents struggle to afford the care.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The pandemic taught us all the importance of child care and the problems with what many call a broken system. 

Teachers say they aren't getting paid well, and the business model means facilities struggle to stay open while North Carolina parents struggle to afford the care in the first place.

The "workforce behind the workforce" is the workers who care for your kids each day. But many are getting out of the business for a variety of reasons, including low pay. A new state-funded program called WAGE$ is working to change that. 

There's one big question, though: is it enough? 

Teresa Watkins is trying to get her classroom ready to welcome little ones once again.

“I’ve been a preschool teacher for 20 years,” Watkins said as she rearranged chairs and organized school supplies the week before school was to start.

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She loves just about everything about her job at The Learning Collaborative in Grier Heights.

“I do it because I love doing it," Watkins said. "It’s a passion." 

The one thing she doesn’t love? The pay.

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“We’re low paid," Watkins said. "We don’t make a lot of money and that’s one reason you see teachers leaving this field because they don’t make the money."

There's help on the way, though. WAGE$ is sort of like a bonus for child care workers who educate kids from birth to 5 years old. It's state money meant to motivate staffers to stay in the business. The program's website says it's meant to provide "education-based salary supplements" to low-paid teachers, directors and family child care providers.

“WAGE$ are like Christmas day for me," Watkins said. "I open the package, get the check out and I’m running to the bank to put it in so I can buy things for my classroom.”

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

Jake House runs Mecklenburg County’s Smart Start, the local agency that distributes the WAGE$ money. Last year, they supported 600 area teachers, paying out an average of $2,300 to each.

The turnover rate of Mecklenburg County wage recipients is just 16% compared to 31% before the Wages program started. But House is clear, the program is not enough.

“WAGE$ is a Band-Aid, make no mistake about it. It is a band-aid solution," House said. “It’s a great benefit but I would like nothing more than to see Wages be extinct, it shouldn’t exist." 

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House said society needs to value child care workers to the point that they’re paid what they deserve and a supplement isn’t necessary. Still, Watkins is grateful.

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“It’s a help, something that comes from somebody that says, 'hey we care, we care about what you’re doing,'” she said.

There are hundreds more teachers across our area that qualify for this additional money.

The early child care teachers simply apply for the wages program and anyone making $23 an hour or less is eligible.

Click here for more information or to see if you qualify to apply 

Contact Meghan Bragg at mbragg@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

WCNC Charlotte is committed to reporting on the issues facing the communities we serve. We tell the stories of people working to solve persistent social problems. We examine how problems can be solved or addressed to improve the quality of life and make a positive difference. WCNC Charlotte is seeking solutions for you. Send your tips or questions to newstips@wcnc.com.

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