COVID Tipped the Scale: How King County Employees Made Childcare a Union Benefit
Ten thousand union members who work for King County, where Seattle is located, have won a $9 million fund to cover emergency childcare expenses this school year. Now the union coalition is pushing to make the benefit permanent.
Childcare affordability was already a crisis for working parents—even before the pandemic. A typical single parent in Washington state spends more than half her income on childcare. The cost of childcare is often greater than college tuition.
And being a parent disproportionately affects working women, who often miss work, pass up promotion opportunities, switch jobs, or quit to take care of their children.
The new benefit can be used for various kinds of childcare, including pre-K, support for school-agers, and tutors.
“For me as a full-time working mom with a special needs child, this is huge,” said Service Employees Local 925 member Stephanie Brown, who works in the Department of Public Defense.
“Even with one parent at home and myself telecommuting, it is extremely difficult to meet the academic needs for both of our kids. Having childcare for just one of our children would help tremendously.”
SEIU 925 first raised the idea of union-negotiated childcare benefits in 2018, when the Coalition of King County Unions was bargaining a successor master agreement. The coalition includes PROTEC17 (a union of professional and technical workers), Teamsters, AFSCME, Office and Professional Employees, Building Trades, and others.
We were inspired by the example of the 1199SEIU Child Care Fund in New York, founded 20 years ago and funded by employer contributions of 0.5 percent of payroll. It now has hundreds of signatory employers and provides childcare benefits to tens of thousands of workers.
It took some internal discussion within our coalition before a childcare proposal was put on the table. The bargaining team debated cost, trade-offs, eligibility, who would benefit, and what ages of children would receive care.
At first some members were opposed, but others spoke from their personal experience as working parents—or as public health workers serving working families—to insist that childcare was an important union issue. At the end of 2018 bargaining, a labor-management task force was formed to explore childcare options.
A task force might not sound like much, but over the following year its activities strengthened union support for the idea. Various local leaders joined a trip to New York to visit the 1199SEIU fund, where they were impressed to hear firsthand from working parents about what a difference it made.
Next the task force commissioned a poll to see how workers in King County would feel about a childcare benefit; the results showed overwhelming support.
As the unions prepared for this year’s bargaining, SEIU 925 put the childcare proposal before the coalition again. This time it passed easily.
COVID TIPPED THE SCALE
When COVID-19 hit, it threw everyone’s family lives into chaos. If there was any doubt left about whether childcare was an important union issue, this settled it.
King County workers, like other parents, were overwhelmed by school closures and childcare providers closing down. Many lost their childcare and had to find more expensive alternatives.
Even workers who didn’t have young kids themselves could see the crisis for their friends, co-workers, and grandkids. Almost everyone knew someone who was juggling work and children.
This year, when union negotiators proposed to tap $9 million for emergency childcare benefits, nearly the entire bargaining team supported it, and management agreed. The money came from a health care fund that had ample reserves, so this allocation does not reduce worker health care benefits. (Health care is bargained separately from the rest of the master agreement, and wrapped up earlier.)
The $9 million is a one-time fund to support union members during the pandemic, and a pilot to show how a childcare program could work. But in the current bargaining for a contract to take effect in January, the union coalition is proposing ongoing childcare funding—this time funded by an employer contribution of 0.5 percent of payroll into a jointly managed fund, just like the one in New York.
Ultimately SEIU 925 and our coalition partners dream of forming a multiemployer, multi-union childcare benefits trust in Washington state, covering public and private sector employers. The need is clear, and the victory at King County is a good first step.
Michael Laslett is the Strategic Campaigns Director of Service Employees 925.