Public funds for early childhood care and education in the state have increased dramatically through the pandemic, but worker advocates note pay for professionals has remained largely stagnant for years.

A group called Organizers in the Land of Enchantment is hosting a meeting to discuss the possibility of boosting nationwide minimum wages for child care workers through an upcoming federal infrastructure budget blueprint.

It’s possible the $3.5 trillion spending deal, if passed, could allot $450 billion to child care nationwide to be spent over the course of 10 years, said Matthew Henderson, who directs the OLE education fund.

“A portion of that $450 billion should be used to cover a substantially higher minimum wage for child care workers,” he said.

What that wage should be, Henderson noted, is still a topic of debate. But he said that in a state where child care workers are being paid just $10 an hour in some places, the number needs to be substantially higher to create a healthier system — and the federal funds could be a route for that.

Congressional committees will meet next week to discuss the specifics of federal child care spending — including the House Committee on Education and Labor, of which U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández is a member.

As the state switches the way it determines child care rates, state Early Education Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said she is hopeful worker wages will see a small boost in coming months.

“I think either next year or the year after, we’re going to go to $12.10,” she said. “So, we modeled our rates based on nobody in a child care facility making less than $12.10 an hour, which is still too low.”

She added if there were a federal minimum wage set for child care workers, the state would need to ensure funding to increase pay levels for workers at higher skill levels.

“We wouldn’t want to just raise the floor and not raise all the other salaries,” she said.

A summative report conducted by the Legislative Finance Committee this month showed that between 2017 and 2019, wages for child care workers decreased slightly — when adjusted for inflation, the average wage deflated from $10.10 in 2017 to $10 in 2019.

Meanwhile, wages for child care center directors rose by nearly 20 percent.

The findings were discussed at a meeting last week.

“I thought it was great that members of the committee raised the issue of child care wages,” Henderson said of the recent report and meeting. “And really pushed Secretary Groginsky to fund higher wages.”

Sen. Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, said he would support comparing wages in New Mexico to that of neighboring states to make sure New Mexico child care workers are being paid appropriately.

Gonzales said funds to pay workers more are available.

“I wouldn’t go as far as statute, but, you know, maybe there’s legislation that needs to be addressed,” Gonzales said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration recently expanded child care assistance eligibility to 350 percent of the federal poverty line. Henderson said an increase in demand for child care is around the corner, as many jobs in the field remain unfilled.

Groginsky said it’s possible the move will increase child care demand, but noted many who are now eligible for assistance were already pursuing care, and that care providers were bearing the brunt of affordability.

Voters in November 2022 will have a chance to decide whether a portion of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund should be drawn each year to support more child care funding. Groginsky said the move could also help sustain higher wages.

“I do believe that we all, both on the executive and legislative side, that our workforce is our No. 1 priority,” she added.

In Santa Fe, online job listings at preschools and day care centers remain widespread.

Groginsky said the issue is common both in New Mexico and nationwide. Job fairs conducted across the state in tandem with the state Department of Workforce Solutions have rendered few new hires, as the state continues to offer wage supplements and pay-parity programs.

There are more than 800 people on unemployment who identify as child care workers, Groginsky said.

She added many may be hesitant to reenter the workforce, both because of wages and health concerns.

“The whole state, the whole country, is struggling with workforce in any industry,” she said. “This one is fundamental, because it kind of feeds all the other industries.”

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