For Benu Chhabra, being a childcare provider is more than a job – it’s a calling. Chhabra has operated a home-based childcare center in Concord, California for 22 years and worked in the childcare field for nine years prior to opening her business. She is passionate about supporting children and their families.
“All of these families, they become like our extended family,” she says.
Unfortunately, families and providers alike struggle to get by with ever-increasing expenses. But Chhabra saw an opportunity in the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from Biden’s American Rescue Plan – and she took it.
Chhabra is part of the Childcare Changemakers organizing program at Community Change, which advocates for making affordable, accessible child care possible for all families while also paying living wages for childcare providers.
Childcare providers like Chhabra have faced many daunting challenges over the past two years. She remained open throughout the entire pandemic because many of the families she serves are essential workers who needed childcare so they could keep working.
Expenses related to pandemic protocols put additional strain on Chhabra’s already stretched-thin budget and trying to obtain critical supplies was an expensive and time-consuming process.
“By the time we got to the stores, everything was gone, because we were not given a priority as essential workers at that time. So we drove at four o’clock in the morning, and everything was gone, so we drove further and stood in the rain to get one stack of paper towels or toilet paper,” she said.
Even without the additional challenges created by the pandemic, Chhabra and other family child care providers are caught in a no-win situation. They barely make enough to cover their expenses – but increasing their revenue would mean raising their fees, and the families they serve are already struggling to afford the costs. “Childcare is their second biggest expense,” Chhabra says.
The biggest challenge is staffing, Chhabra says. It is difficult to find and keep good workers because she can’t pay enough or offer benefits – meaning she can’t compete with other potential employers like retail stores or fast-food restaurants. “They can go to Peet’s Coffee, which is paying $20 an hour or more.”
Universal childcare and a significant federal commitment to supporting childcare workers and ensuring they earn a reasonable wage would greatly alleviate many of the obstacles that Chhabra and other childcare providers face.
Meanwhile, access to grants funded by federal legislation passed last year could help home-based childcare providers in Concord.
Concord received an allocation of $27 million in ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Program funds, of which $8 million has already been spent. At its council meeting in September, the Concord City Council continued its discussions about how it plans to use the remaining funds.
In preparation for this meeting, childcare providers in the area organized to ensure their voices were heard by local officials. In the city’s tentative plan to distribute grants to local small businesses impacted by the pandemic, home-based businesses wouldn’t have been eligible to apply for grants, but Chhabra and other local childcare providers launched an effort to lobby for an exception to be made for home-based family childcare centers. They spoke at Council meetings, initiated a letter-writing campaign, and worked to raise public awareness about the hardships faced by many home-based childcare providers.
Their efforts paid off. During that September meeting, Assistant City Manager Justin Ezell – who presented a report from the Council Ad Hoc Committee overseeing the American Rescue Plan Act Investment Plan – noted, “The Ad Hoc Committee heard loud and clear that family childcare homes struggled during the pandemic, and therefore these homes will be eligible for these funds, so long as they are state-licensed and have been operating since June 30, 2020.”
Councilmember Tim McGallian even thanked Chhabra specifically for her advocacy and bringing together parents and providers on this issue.
Concord City Council approved the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendation for a plan that earmarks $2 million to support small businesses, in the form of grants of $5,000 that would help reimburse the cost of allowed expenses. Home-based childcare providers were deemed eligible to apply for these grants and they were only required to be licensed by the state – they didn’t need to have a city business license, which would have been a problem for many of them.
While she is relieved about this City Council decision, Chhabra isn’t done yet. This victory has motivated her to set her sights higher and continue the momentum she and other organizers have achieved. Next up: Contra Costa County. “The county has this pot of money sitting there, too. So we’re going to try to go for that, for our providers,” Chhabra said.