Suburban Nursery School and Pre-K Director Connie Moore.
Credit: Diane Loupe

DECATUR, Ga. (WOMENSENEWS)–Dawn has just begun to melt the navy blue night sky and morning birds are chirping when Connie Moore’s day begins.

By 6 a.m., the director of the Suburban Nursery School and Pre-K in Decatur, Ga., is in her white Toyota picking up her center’s longtime cook, Gloria Sewell, from a nearby station of MARTA, the mass transit system. Sewell’s day begins 45 minutes earlier at her home in southwest Atlanta.

Back at the center, Moore will switch out of her role as chauffeur and play the various parts of administrator, counselor, bookkeeper, teacher and diaper-changer.

State officials delineate 18 steps to properly diaper a child, and babies must be put to sleep on their backs with no blankets or toys in their cribs; Moore has to make sure her staff follow these and other child-care guidelines.

Helping one blond girl wash her hands, she notes in alarm a bright red mark on her face, what appears to be a fresh injury. “Where did you get that?” she asks, dabbing at it with a clean paper towel. She’s relieved when the child says her brother did it.

Moore estimates that 75 percent of her job is risk management, or looking out for the health and safety of children only a few months old to 5-year-olds. She slips blue paper booties over her shoes when she steps into the infant room and scans the carpet for any stray toys or, heaven forbid, a loose carpet tack that might injure a child.

Carefully she chalks up the day’s menu – almond butter and jelly sandwiches. The center uses almond butter instead of the cheaper peanut butter in their lunch sandwiches due to peanut allergies and offers organic milk as an option.

Slipping on blue rubber gloves and arming herself with a spray bottle of a bleach solution, Moore confesses to her biggest morning challenge: a bathroom toilet where little boys “use it for target practice.”

Above Average

Moore has two graduate degrees, a master’s in library science from nearby Emory University and one in business from Georgia State. She’s also earned the child development associate certification, requiring 120 hours of training.

At $48,000 per year, Moore’s salary as a director of the pre-K and nursery school is close to the national average of $51,290 for administrators of preschools and child care centers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it’s well above the $36,153 that Payscale, an online compensation tracker, gives as the average 2012 salary for this position in Georgia.

The Suburban school is a family business. Moore’s 73-year-old mother has owned and operated it for five decades. The center offers hourly wages that range from $8.50 to $13 for a 40-hour week, says Moore, higher than the state average of $9.13 for Georgia child care workers. Full-timers at Suburban get paid vacations and holiday pay, but the center doesn’t provide health insurance. Moore says she supports health care reform.

Moore, who is 55, draws a “small pension” from a large telecommunications company where she worked for more than 28 years, and pays a “hefty premium” for retiree health insurance through Kaiser Permanente, based in Oakland, Calif. Moore retired so she could enter into the family business.

Since assuming the new role three years ago, Moore has worked to get national accreditation from the National Early Childhood Program, which she achieved in March. As part of that effort, Moore worked with Quality Care for Children, a nonprofit agency based in Atlanta that assists Georgia parents to find affordable child care and provides staff training assistance for centers.

Not Getting Rich

“There are very few men in the field, which in part accounts for the fact that it’s a low paid, low-wage profession,” says Pam Tatum, president and CEO of Quality Care for Children. Women get into the field “because they want to work with children; they’re not in it to get rich.”

The wages of many child care workers in metro Atlanta are so low that they qualify for federal assistance programs meant for the poor. Most of the state’s child care workers get no health insurance, no retirement and few other benefits, says Tatum.

Recently, Quality Care for Children gave a scholarship so that a child care provider in Cartersville, a rural area near Atlanta, could get her certification training. A few weeks later, Tatum says, “we also helped her apply for food stamps, which is really a sad state for early childhood education.” The worker had 10 years in the field and her only salary increase came when the federal minimum wage was raised, Tatum adds.

“Few other businesses have a staff retention strategy that depends on qualifying staff for public benefits,” says Tatum.

Centers can’t easily raise tuition though, says Tatum, because so many families are cash-strapped. “Yes, we need to increase the wages of child care workers, but that will increase the cost of providing child care services. And parents can’t afford it. That’s the dilemma.”

Some parents may compare what they are paying for child care and the average wages and erroneously conclude “somebody is surely getting rich,” says Tatum.

In fact, child care centers have very low profit margins, between 3 percent and 5 percent “in good times,” according to Tatum. Turnover is a constant problem because of the low wages. Centers that help provide extra training to their staff often find those workers leaving for better paying jobs with their new credentials.

At Suburban, tuition is $175 per week for ages 3 and older and $195 per week for 2 and younger. The cost is moderate enough that the school always fills open slots by word of mouth with no marketing, not even a website, says Moore.

“We don’t have very much employee turnover” at Suburban, says Moore, who credits her mother’s thrifty nature with maintaining the center’s profit margin. Suburban is a “debt-free operation,” says Moore. “We pay for what we need.”

Further Financial Stability

To make up for the low wages, some workers rely on various government aid programs. Seedco, a nonprofit agency based in New York with a satellite office in Atlanta, sends staffers into metro child care centers serving low-income parents to screen employees and some parents for federal or state benefits.

A majority of child care workers quality for such federal “needs-based” programs as Medicaid, food stamps and WIC, the nutritional support program that helps feed 2.14 million women and 2.17 million infants a year, roughly half of all U.S. infants. Many also qualify for PeachCare for Kids, a state insurance program for low-income children, says Michele Chivore, a program manager at Seedco.

Chivore says these public benefits help workers gain additional financial stability and reduce staff turnover at the centers.

Moore says her staffers often pull together in financial emergencies. When a staffer’s only son, 19, was shot and killed, the rest of the workers and parents donated money to help with the funeral expenses.

Workers also must be vigilant about remaining healthy since working around children exposes them to constant germs. “This is like a big petri dish,” jokes Moore, who has had bouts of sinusitis since she started working at the school.

An annual flu shot is a must, and she got one for whooping cough too when an epidemic of pertussis erupted a few years ago. Moore keeps her tetanus shot up to date and makes sure she gets to a Bikram yoga class at least five times a week. “I take good care of myself,” says Moore.

Jackie Steel has worked at Suburban for 16 years, where she says she has “full, challenging days.” She takes public transportation to work because she says she cannot afford a car, adding that “it’s hard” sometimes to make ends meet. Although she is a certified nursing assistant, Steel says she prefers working at Suburban because “I love children.”

Hiring workers can also be a challenge. “We want a good person,” says Moore. “It’s hard to get that match. People say they love working with children, but they have no experience working in a child care center. People think it’s easier than it is.”

Diane Loupe is a freelance writer and editor in Decatur, Ga., and teaches writing at the Interactive College of Technology in Chamblee, Ga.

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