It was a moment of soul-searching, Tonia McMillian said. Downsizing at the healthcare company she'd worked for cost her her job. That left her with a big question: what did she really want to do with her life?
Her answer: “I've got to do something about this tugging at my heart to work with children."
McMillian, a new mother, enrolled in child development classes at nearby Long Beach City College, earned her Associates Degree, and got licensed by the State of California to open a family child care business in her Bellflower home. She called it “Kiddies Depot.”
McMillian - now in the 21st year of running her child care business - is one of about 32,000 licensed family home child care providers statewide.
They are independent contractors and many receive subsidies to serve low-income families. The funding is a blend of state and federal funds - but McMillan and other providers are paid through third-party child care agencies. And that's where it gets complicated.
There are lots of rules - sign-in and sign-out sheets for parents have to be just so, for instance.
“If there is a problem on the attendance sheet, like two different color black inks were used, they hold up the providers pay until they figure out what they want to do,” she said.
McMillian said she has missed paying bills, been unable to pay her staff and has had to charge to her credit card food for kids' lunches and supplies.
Other things can delay payments - like an agency's pay cycle or delays from Sacramento.
When McMillian realized she wasn't the only one having problems, she started trying to help the other childcare providers she met.
“As I met more providers I realized that we can’t each try and solve our problems on our own,” she said. “We need to band together.” McMillian donned a new hat: community organizer.
She began visiting other child care providers in her neighborhood during naptime and that led to small strategy meetings.
In 2010, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding, she said she and others began looking for a union. Terry Carter, of SEIU Local 99, said the providers complained about the middlemen.
McMillan said because the providers around the state are independent contractors who technically work for different childcare agencies, not the state, they can't join a statewide union. She has high hopes for a bill in Sacramento -- AB 641 -- which would give them the right to unionize statewide. It would also establish a parent advisory committee that providers could join and would provide recommendations to the state Legislature for improving the state’s child care subsidy program.
The state-funded advocacy group First 5 LA has called delayed payments an “increasing threat to low-income families and to the child-care infrastructure of L.A. County.” It recently launched a zero-percent bridging loan program as a cash-flow stop gap for child care providers.
McMillian said it's not just the late payments. She said the rates themselves are low and haven't risen since 2005: $180.32 per week of full-time care for children under 2 and $169.99 per week for children 2- to 5-years-old.
McMillian estimates she worked 65-hour work weeks last year and netted about $15,000. That appears to be about average. A 2003 County of Los Angeles Child Care Planning Committee survey of providers in the County found they averaged 62-hour work weeks for a net pay of just over $15,000.
On a recent visit with another provider, Eva Hoffman-Murry, the woman mentioned to McMillian she's "very involved" in the local church where her husband is a pastor.
McMillan asked if she would be willing to speak out about what she was experiencing at her church - and she said she'd love to.
At a recent meeting McMillian organized in her home, local providers gathered to discuss how to get other childcare providers on board for an upcoming union event - a bus tour from San Diego to Sacramento to build support for the bill. The bus tour begins Tuesday, making stops at child care providers' homes across the state.