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Child care workers rally to support a bill to address staffing crisis

Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills and dozens of others gathered outside of the State House watch as House Speaker Ryan Fecteau speaks about a bill he sponsored that would boost the wages of many child care workers by about $200 a month.

AUGUSTA – Dozens of child care workers gathered at the Maine State House on Wednesday to celebrate the anticipated success of a bill that would boost wages in hopes of stemming a staffing crisis within the industry.

Joined by Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as Gov. Janet Mills, the workers and advocates said the bill was needed to address an already dire staffing situation that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many child care workers and early childhood educators were lured away to other jobs that offered better hours and higher wages, which in turn created bigger challenges for parents trying to return to their own workplaces.

Gina Forbes recounted her own experiences from both sides of the child care crisis in Maine. As the former director of a preschool program in South Portland, Forbes said it was a constant struggle to retain workers in a stressful job that demands long hours for low pay. But as a parent of two young children, Forbes said she also feels the financial strain of having to pay for child care.

"It is an understatement to say that it is a constant and persistent stress on me and my family to figure out how to afford high-quality child care,” Forbest said. “There are times when I am not sure I can continue to afford to work. Every investment in early care and education is an investment in Maine families like mine."

A bill pending in the Legislature would provide many child care workers in Maine a stipend of about $200 a month. Sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, the bill has received unanimous approval from the Maine House and Senate in initial votes. And while the Legislature's budget-writing committee has yet to finalize work on a new spending plan for next year, Democrats and Republicans on the panel have already voted in support of earmarking $12 million to pay for the increases.

Fecteau says that in addition to the $200-a-month raises, future stipends will be tiered to reward those who pursue professional development in early childhood education.

"Lawmakers here in Augusta are with you. We see you and we recognize your hard work,” Fecteau said. “Your work is critical, a critical piece of Maine's overall economic health, the wellbeing of our children and the prosperity of Maine's families."

Another childhood education professional, Republican Rep. Amanda Collamore of Pittsfield, called the bill “a step in the right direction.”

“I look forward to continuing to advocate for the pay and benefits that early child educators deserve without having to raise fees on Maine hardworking families,” Collamore said.

Gov. Janet Mills proposed setting aside roughly $12 million of the estimated $1.2 billion surplus for the monthly stipends for child care workers. That money is aimed at supplementing $120 million in federal assistance that child care facilities and preschools received during the pandemic. Mills said another $25 million in federal money will help renovate, expand or build new child education facilities. But the stipends will help workers.

"Let's get this bill across the finish line so that the next time you all come back here, it will be to join me to sign that bill into law,” Mills said to loud applause from the crowd.

The Legislature is expected to vote on the revised budget plan in the next several weeks.