The pandemic is decimating the early education and care workforce.

A new publication — that draws on the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — explains how. 

“As we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, child care has been hailed as essential, yet policy responses to COVID-19 have mostly ignored educators themselves, leaving most to choose between their livelihood and their health,” the report – “Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020” – says.

The index is released every two years by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), based at the University of California Berkeley

“Over the course of the first eight months of the pandemic, 166,000 jobs in the child care industry were lost. As of October 2020, the industry was only 83 percent as large as it was in February, before the pandemic began.”

“Even before the pandemic, the index found, progress toward better compensation had been limited and uneven across states and among different classifications of early educators,” a news release explains. “Child care workers earn a national median wage of just $11.65 an hour for a job that is critically important not just to children and their parents, but to the entire U.S. economy.”

“…many child care workers number among America’s working poor, with wages too low to make ends meet,” the news release adds.

“For single adults working in child care, pay falls short of a living wage in a majority of states. For single adults with one child of their own, the median wage is not enough to live on in any state.”

As a result, “early childhood educators experience poverty at nearly eight times the rate of colleagues who teach kindergarten through eighth grade.”

And as CBS News reports, “Black early educators on average are paid $0.78 less per hour than their White peers, CSCCE reported.”

“The biggest barrier to improve working conditions for early educators has been the lack of a publicly funded system of early care and education,” Caitlin McClain, a researcher at CSCCE, tells CNBC.

The index also includes a “State Explorer” tool that details salaries and policies.

In Massachusetts, for example:

•“In 2019 the median wage for child care workers was $14.11, a 6% increase since 2017” 

• For preschool teachers the median wage was $17.55, a 7% increase since 2017,” and 

• “For preschool or child care center directors, the median wage was $25.86, a 9% decrease since 2017”

In addition:

“Massachusetts early educators with a bachelor’s degree are paid 35.2 percent less than their colleagues in the K-8 system. The poverty rate for early educators in Massachusetts is 15.3 percent, much higher than for Massachusetts workers in general (8.7 percent) and 6.6 times as high as for K-8 teachers (2.3 percent).”

And while progress is being made on work environments – which includes things such as paying providers for planning and professional development time – Massachusetts has “stalled” on compensation and financial relief strategies, including tax credits and bonuses.

To address these challenges, the index says that all states can focus on seven areas:

• qualifications and educational supports: “Policies and pathways that provide consistent standards and support for educators to achieve higher education”

• work environment standards: to hold programs “accountable for providing safe and supportive work environments for early educators”

• compensation and financial relief strategies: “to ensure compensation equal to the value of early educators’ work”

• state-level workforce data collection on “the size, characteristics, and working conditions” of providers

• financial resources: public investment in workforce and broader early childhood system

• income supports and child care assistance for low-income workers and parents, “including income tax credits, minimum wage legislation, and child care tax credits,” and

• supports for health and well-being, including “paid sick leave, paid family leave, and access to health insurance”

As the report notes, “The time is past due to overcome sticker shock about the costs of an appropriately funded early care and education system that is effective and equitable for children, their families, and early educators.”

“The expectation that an already overburdened child care system can meet the demands of an emergency situation without adequate support is impractical and irresponsible. The pandemic, while dire, nonetheless provides policymakers at federal and state levels with an opportunity to reimagine how ECE is funded, both in the short term and in the long term. Restoring the pre-pandemic system is not the answer to the decades-long child care crisis.”

What the country needs instead is a “transformative vision and the financial resources to implement that vision” to build “a system that delivers on the promise of early education for all children, their families, and the educators upon whom they rely.”