Not too long ago, Diana Gonzalez struggled to make ends meet for her children.
Between paying for basic necessities and for child care, money often seemed to be in short supply, Gonzalez told the Journal, saying she didn’t “have time just to make more money to pay the day care or to pay for gasoline or food.”
A policy from the state eliminating child care copays for thousands like Gonzalez seemed to help. But in recent months, many were left wondering if the state could keep it up as the policy’s expiration date approached.
On Monday, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced that policy, as well as another setting $15 per hour minimum wages for early childhood employees, is back on track for the foreseeable future.
“I feel so good, I feel secure and I feel more responsible with my kids,” Gonzalez said of the announcement. “I’m just going to … have more money in my pocket to just to take care of them.”
Both policies, the department said, were set to expire in the coming months, leaving many families and child care providers worried about having to re-shoulder the financial burdens the policies lifted.
“We had a lot of questions coming at us. We have parents rightfully asking, providers asking — everybody wants to know what’s going to be different,” Early Childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky told the Journal. “It is not our goal to roll back. Our goal is to move forward and to maintain momentum.”
Some advocates and educators closed their doors Monday for a “day without child care,” originally over concerns about low wages for educators and whether the department is sufficiently funded to maintain zero copays.
But at Avengers Learning Center, Gonzalez and others celebrated the early childhood department’s announcement, only adding that there’s still some work to be done.
By the numbers
The free child care expansion would have expired in about two months. It waives copays for families whose income is up to 400% of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is around $30,000, meaning the cap for such a family is around $120,000.
There are 42,581 New Mexico families who are eligible to receive such child care assistance, according to the department. Currently, about 11,367 families with children under 6 are being served.
The policy was originally funded through federal pandemic relief funds. Now, Groginsky said, the money it’ll take to cover not charging copays will be paid through a mix of early childhood trust fund money and federal dollars. Some of the federal money is from ongoing federal relief.
If copayments were ever reinstated, Groginsky said, families and child care providers would get a warning three months in advance. The department is also proposing a new copay schedule, which would act as a failsafe in case copays come back.
The department’s also planning to increase the rates it uses to pay centers for child care assistance.
That’s partly to cover taxes for child care, placing that on the centers instead of families, and partly to cover a plan to deliver pay bumps to employees that was announced last year and was also set to expire in September.
Many of New Mexico’s early childhood employees, Groginsky said, will keep that raise, although at the end of the day the early childhood department can’t enforce that providers use the additional revenue on keeping the raises.
“We would hold them accountable if they were spending the money on things not related to caring for the children,” she said. “(But) we’re not going to say, ‘Are you paying this person this exact amount’ … that’s out of our purview.”
As of last month, about 7,000 certified employees were receiving the raise.
The department plans to hold a public hearing on its proposed regulation changes at 9 a.m. on June 22 in Santa Fe.
The plan to fund raises that was announced Monday comes after, but not necessarily because of, an ethics question about the original plan.
In December, the State Ethics Commission found that the early childhood department’s plan to provide grants to child care providers for raises would violate New Mexico’s anti-donation clause if they used state funds.
But the department feels “very confident” that using state funds to raise child care assistance rates for providers to maintain the raises doesn’t violate the anti-donation clause, a spokesman said, adding that there hasn’t been a violation because state funds weren’t used for the grants.
While the extra $3 per hour is a big help, some say there’s still work to be done, including Sandra Ibarra, an early childhood educator who said she received the raise.
“It’s helped me a lot … to afford all the expenses in my home” like food, house payments and clothes, the single mother told the Journal in Spanish. “I’m grateful for the $15 (per hour), but I believe we still deserve a bit more.”