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The educators at the University of Michigan Children’s Centers are responsible for teaching and socializing the youngest victors on campus. After more than a year of working as critical employees during a pandemic, U-M child care center teachers are now demanding higher salaries, saying their wages do not reflect the demands of their job.

The problem 

The average salary of a teacher at the U-M centers is $38,588, far below the base salary of an Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher at $43,906.

The Daily spoke to two teachers from the U-M child care centers, both of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation. For the purposes of this article, they will be referred to as Source 1 and Source 2. 

Source 1 has a bachelor’s degree in early education and works in the early preschool department. They said their main frustration with the situation is their compensation not being reflective of their role as an educator. 

“We’re working on a 12-month schedule, and we’re being compensated for less than what nine-month teachers are putting out,” Source 1 said. “With the same qualifications and the same level of education and the same interactions with young people and children.” 

Source 1 said as a research university, the University should be better able to recognize the importance of their work, which has been proven to have lasting, positive impacts on a child’s development. 

“We’re building the foundation for the educational future of our tiniest victors here at the University,” Source 1 said. “And they don’t want to pay the teachers, who are on the front lines with their children, a living wage.” 

Source 2, a lead teacher who supervises the U-M child care center workers, highlighted another issue: retention. The lack of compensation does not encourage new teachers to be interested in the program in a time when new teachers are desperately needed, they said.

“I think if I was being paid more and I could’ve paid for child care for my children, it would’ve been a better situation for my children and me because teaching my children was not a good experience,” Source 2 said.

Jennie McAlpine, senior director of Work-Life Programs at the University’s Work-Life Resource Center, wrote in an email to The Daily that because of low compensation, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are experiencing an educator shortage.

“It is hard for staff to stay in a chronically undercompensated, demanding job and care for themselves and their families,” McAlpine wrote. 

Working during a pandemic 

Source 1 also said these teachers were called back to work in-person by the University amid the COVID-19 pandemic, long before the vaccines were readily available. 

“We’re needed by the University and they showed that by having us continue to work through the pandemic while a lot of the families were working from the comfort of their homes at the time,” Source 1 said. “But we’re not being compensated for being critical staff.” 

Though children ages 5-11 just became eligible to receive their COVID-19 vaccines as of Nov. 10, children under five are still not eligible for vaccination. As a result, teachers have been working with an unvaccinated population, putting themselves at risk of being exposed to COVID-19. 

With low vaccination rates in K-12 schools as well as a staff shortage, Ann Arbor has seen many school closures this fall due to low staff numbers. 

Source 2 said child care workers are in even more of a dire situation than others considering that they teach children who are often sick.

“Since we work with children, we get sick often,” Source 2 said. “If you have sick symptoms, you can’t come to work because you have to get tested and have your test results before you can come back, even if it’s just a cold. We’re always understaffed and that’s stretching teachers.” 

Funding issues

According to McAlpine, 90% of the Work-Life Resource Center’s funding comes directly from tuition, while 10% comes directly from the University. This, according to Source 1, is a large part of the problem. 

“The University expects the child care centers to pay for themselves, which in turn raises tuition costs, which is a burden to families and it doesn’t allow for the teachers in our programs to make a living wage,” Source 1 said.

Source 2 reiterated that teachers’ compensation is directly related to the price of tuition, but  pointed out that does not automatically mean child care workers are being compensated fairly.

“I know that they’re paying us everything they can pay,” Source 2 said. “But the system doesn’t work. We need to be subsidized by something. ”

McAlpine said in comparison to other universities and communities, the University of Michigan is working hard to help the teachers and their child care centers. In 2018, the University added an additional $500,000 to general fund operating support which helped raise entry-level salaries, McAlpine said.

The people 

According to Source 2, child care workers’ work is not just important, but it also takes a toll on teachers.Source 2 said the teachers in the program are often expected to act both as educators and as support to families.

“You’re there to support the child’s growth and development, and the child is so closely connected to the family that you’re emotionally involved in the family’s life,” Source 2 said.

This job also, according to Source 2, encourages people to work together. Source 2 said classrooms have three teachers at a time and that the close relationship with these teachers can be stressful, especially as they try to navigate children who are constantly developing and growing.

“You’re working with two other teachers, kind of almost living in this classroom together,” Source 2 said. “We joke that your teaching team is kind of like a marriage that you have not chosen, and you’re working together to raise children, all of them with different levels.”

“I expect more from the University of Michigan” 

Both sources said this under-compensation has consequences for the teachers in the child care centers, especially for housing and other living costs.

Housing costs in Ann Arbor are about 17% higher than the national average, with the median cost of a home in Ann Arbor being $407,378 and the median rent being $1,276 per month. Grocery costs in Ann Arbor are also 10% higher than the national average, and health care costs are 25% higher, making the overall cost of living in Ann Arbor out of reach for many child care center employees.

Source 1 said a significant majority of her colleagues are unable to afford to live in or around Ann Arbor. Despite not going into the work for the money, many people are choosing to leave the centers in search of better compensation, Source 1 said. 

“People go into this field because they’re good at working with children and they have an understanding of child development,” Source 1 said. “Because our work is not easy.” 

Emily Youatt, director of the undergraduate education at the School of Public Health and mom to three children who have been or are currently enrolled in U-M child care centers, said her and her children have received nothing but exemplary care from the early childhood educators. Their low compensation is extremely worrying, Youatt said.

“For a long time, I’ve been struggling with what I know is really low compensation for those who work at U of M child care centers, which are predominantly women that are poorly compensated,” Youatt said. 

While women dominate the field of education, they are consistently underpaid in comparison to men. On average, female educators earn considerably less per year than their male counterparts, and this gap only grows with time and experience. 

Not only have the child care centers taken care of her children and allowed her to work, Youatt said, but have also given her three children a “wonderful start in life,” making low compensation even more upsetting. 

“I expect more from the University of Michigan,” Youatt said. “I expect more from an educational institution and the fact that we have these teachers, who we know that their work is so important and yet they’re paid so little.”

The solution 

According to McAlpine, the process for getting more funding for the centers would involve convening a task force to write up a plan justifying and mapping out the needed resources. This plan would then be sent through a variety of levels of University administration before finally having to be approved by the Board of Regents. But, McAlpine added, this problem of under-compensation is larger than the University.

“This is a national problem and I hope that we can all work together to find some solutions,” McAlpine wrote. 

A potential solution might be found in recent legislation passed both on the state and federal levels to support early childhood education. 

Governor Whitmer’s new $1.5 billion allocation to support early childhood education, and President Biden’s national infrastructure bill that would support many in caregiving/education positions are all indications that America may finally deal with this decades old problem,” McAlpine wrote.

When contacted for comment, the University’s Office of Public Affairs directed The Daily to McAlpine.

Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder and Daily News Contributor Riley Hodder can be reached at phodder@umich.edu and rehodder@umich.edu.