Just before Easter, children climbed on colorful play structures under tall shade trees at Pamela Chauvin's child care center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Staff wore bunny ears as the kids hunted for Easter eggs, running around outside the toddler building with its bright red doors.

"We haven't closed," said Chauvin, who operates the Creative Learning Preschool And Childcare Center for infants through 8-year-olds.

"A lot of our clients are medical people or first responders," she said. "We stay open to care for their children."

However, daily attendance is down to 30 or 40 kids instead of the usual 105. And the center has scrambled to get gloves and cleaning supplies.

"We've had a difficult time getting Lysol and hand sanitizer. We had a really hard time getting a no-touch thermometer," she said.

But child care is vital for the people working in two nearby hospitals.

"If we don't work, they don't work," Chauvin said.

Critical work for poverty wages

Suddenly, the rest of the world is discovering that child care is an essential job. States are listing child care providers as critical workers and asking centers to stay open so that hospital staff and first responders can work too.

But the pay is still abysmal, and working with groups of children carries a risk of contracting COVID-19. Health and safety guidelines vary from state to state, and cleaning supplies and protective equipment are hard to get. The very workers who take these risks are unlikely to have health insurance.

A masked child care worker with a small child. Photo from the Essential Not Expendable Facebook page.

Based on 2017 figures, the median pay for people who work in child care was $10.72 per hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

They are among the lowest paid workers in the country, said Lea J.E. Austin, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based center.

"This workforce as a whole experiences economic insecurity in every community in this country," she said. Child care workers are primarily women, and 40 percent are women of color.

Child care workers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama earned some of the lowest actual wages, less than $9.00 an hour in 2017. But when adjusted for the cost of living, child care pay appears no worse in the South than across the nation. Mississippi ranked higher than 34 other states, while Alabama and Louisiana were still in the bottom half of states.

Suddenly the rest of the world is discovering that child care is an essential job.

"They're struggling with their own well-being, kind of living on the brink of poverty, many of them in poverty," Austin said.

More than half receive public assistance. They are enrolled in food stamps, Medicaid, the Children's Help Insurance Program (CHIP) or the welfare program known as TANF—or some combination of these programs.

Now child care workers are even more financially precarious as enrollment numbers drop. Many daycare centers have had to close. On April 21, 55 percent of providers were closed in Louisiana, according to Kenny Francis, director of policy and child advocacy at that state's Agenda For Children. On that date in Georgia, 60 percent  were closed. An early April survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center showed similar percentages nationwide.

Meanwhile, those that remain open are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Speaking out

Child care workers are demanding better.

Robin Lewis, a lead teacher at Wishview Children's Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is currently closed, posted a meme on Facebook: "We're called essential because calling us sacrificial would just be too honest."

A child care worker with two children is pictured in an image created by the group Mothering Justice for the #Movement4Childcare week of action.

A  comment from  Jenn Somers, also in the field, read: "cannon fodder."

The Facebook group Essential, Not Expendable was created on March 27. It now has more than 6,000 members posting their frustrations along with questions, advice, and resources on everything from dealing with day-to-day situations at work to organizing petitions and lobbying legislators.

Last week, child care workers participated in a #Movement4ChildCare week of action led by a network of national organizations championing economic, racial, and gender justice. They used social media to drive home the message that the child care industry needs dedicated federal funding in order to survive.

Legislation introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) calls for $50 billion for child care in the next COVID-19 relief package. Without federal action, states have taken a piecemeal approach to issuing their own guidelines about child care.

"We're called essential because calling us sacrificial would just be too honest."

Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky ordered centers closed except to serve the children of essential workers. In Alabama, centers may remain open as long as no more than 12 children are in a room. In Louisiana, groups are limited to a total of 10 children and staff.

Only Rhode Island has closed all group care and offered funding to essential workers to pay for one-on-one care by a home-based provider. Austin says this model is what all states should follow.

The differences in policy on closures, resources and emergency care are causing "stress, confusion, and dismay" among people in the field, she wrote in a blog.

An empty playground at a child care center. Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr.

A fix for the future

Beyond stopgap measures, longer term solutions are needed, child care advocacy groups say.

Even before the pandemic destabilized the child care system, there were already problems for both providers and parents: On one hand the pay is low but the cost to provide child care is high and families can't really afford it.

Now child care providers are worried about whether they'll even be working after the pandemic. In a March survey, 47 percent said they couldn't survive a closure of two weeks. An analysis by the Center for American Progress estimates that half of all child care slots could disappear if providers don't receive assistance.

At her home about an hour outside Chattanooga, Helen Marvelene Fagg opens the door to Ruthie, the preschooler who'll spend the day. They'll play outside, have storytime, rummage through the dress-up clothes box and have a lunch at 11:30 a.m  It's a strange feeling to have only one child out of the seven she normally cares for.

For many child care workers, this moment requires a re-evaluation of how child care is supported in this country.

This one-on-one child care is not what Fagg planned on. Her home-based child care business is down to two children and both kids don't come every day.

"I've been licensed in this house for seven children since 1993," she said.

She's seen her revenue drop from $1,000 a week to only $130 on some weeks—the amount she charges for one child.

She lives in an area of poverty, she said, and she clearly fears she'll be sliding into it.

For many child care workers, this moment requires a re-evaluation of how child care is supported in this country.

As Kim Hughes of Conscious Connections in Wake Forest, North Carolina, posted in the Essential, Not Expendable Facebook group:

"NEW RULE: If you're 'essential' enough to work through a pandemic, you're essential enough to be paid a LIVING wage"

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta, but she has been shaped by her rural upbringing in Marion Junction, Alabama. She writes frequently for Youth Today about innovative work with young people and education outside of school. Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and elsewhere. She is a former digital producer/editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.