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AFSCME members join federal roundtable discussion on Head Start program

Photo credit: Yan Krukau/Pexels
AFSCME members join federal roundtable discussion on Head Start program
By Pablo Ros and Nick Voutsinos ·
Tags: Our Stories

The Biden administration issued an executive order last year to increase families’ access to high-quality child care and support caregivers. AFSCME President Lee Saunders called it “a major milestone in our effort to address the crisis in care and win respect and recognition for care workers.”

Last month, to commemorate the anniversary of the executive order, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) held a virtual roundtable with Head Start staff from across the country. AFSCME members Rebecca Carlson and Linda McPherson participated.

The Head Start program supports children from birth to age 5.

“I think the give-back spirit is what I have that keeps me here,” said McPherson, a family service coordinator for a Head Start program in New York and member of AFSCME District Council 37 whose children attended Head Start. “I definitely don’t do it for the finances, I do it because I want to give back.”

McPherson, an immigrant from Guyana, said Head Start allowed her kids to have the same opportunities when they came to America as other kids had.  

Head Start staff, and caregivers in general, are among the lowest paid workers in the nation.

“The care workforce … plays a crucial role in our communities, and it’s a commitment to intense and skilled work that unfortunately includes people that are among the lowest paid in the country,” said Katie Hamm, HHS deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development. “Care workers, who are disproportionately women of color, are the backbone of our economy and the driving force in the delivery of comprehensive services to children and families in communities across America.”

The Head Start program in particular, Hamm also said, has for too long “relied on committed staff to accept lower wages, even as we ask more of them.”

But the Biden executive order will soon change that. In November, the Office of Head Start published proposed changes that would require the Head Start program to pay its staff comparable salaries to those of preschool teachers in public schools and benefits like health insurance and regular breaks.

The salary increases would amount to an average of $10,000 in additional pay per year for Head Start early educators.

“Improving wages and benefits are critical to sustaining quality, keeping children safe in Head Start and reducing teacher turnover, which is unfortunately increasing significantly in recent years,” Hamm said.

Carlson, a co-teacher for the Tri-County Community Action Partnership in Minnesota and member of AFSCME Council 65, said she does her job because she has a passion for educating children, but proper staffing and good pay matter.

“It would help to have more staff,” she said, especially to take care of children with special needs. “And also a better pay would help me and my family to live our lives. We all have struggles.”

Carlson said many of the kids she works with come from bad home situations, and she is honored to give them space eight hours a day to learn, grow and be themselves — a space they may not get at home.

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