“No, no, leave the stickers on! Take off just the plastic,” my mother ordered as I unwrapped a picnic table in the living room. “I’m gonna take it back to Costco next week.” We laughed. My mother, never self-conscious about our family’s ceaseless need for frugality, was hosting a dinner for seven in my parents’ one-bedroom apartment, a tight seven hundred fifty square feet for which they paid around fifteen hundred dollars a month. The indestructible plastic table I was handling was meant to supplement my parents’ two other dining-room tables for the Christmas dinner that my mother had spent hours preparing: fried fish gumbo, bitter-leaf stew, steamed cassava, and other West African dishes. I covered the tables with red and white paper sheets, then silverware and steaming platters. My mother looked on proudly. The display was simple—candles were a hazard anyway—but it would do fine.
I understood why my mother was keen on having Miss Mahin and Miss Uzo over for Christmas Day (their names have been changed to protect their anonymity). They were her friends, but she also spoke of them with a certain maternal pride; Miss Uzo and Miss Mahin were closer to my age than hers. They had met while caring for and teaching small children at a branch of Bright Horizons, a fancy private childcare corporation, in an affluent Northern Virginia town. Their center was in a basement, one floor up from the parking lot. Sometimes my mother caught the whiff of car exhaust amid the potpourri of milk, diapers, baby cream, and tater tots.
My mother and Miss Mahin taught kindergarten prep classes of children aged four and five, while Miss Uzo had quit months ago to teach at a local public elementary school. Back at the Bright Horizons center, she had nurtured babies as young as two weeks old and taught kids old enough to be in school. Although Miss Uzo had moved on to a better-paying job, she had loved the little ones under her care and remained fond of their parents. Around the winter holidays, many of them would have shown her their appreciation—as they did for every teacher—with various tokens: chocolates, scarves, jewelry, store cards, beauty products, or even cash. Some of the generosity towards the teachers suggested, for some parents, a keen awareness that their children’s teachers made do with very little. Even the center’s best-compensated teachers could never afford to place their own children at the center on their Bright Horizons earnings alone. Bright Horizons “can’t confirm any specific assertions as they relate to an individual employee, individual conversations or an experience that might [be] unique to a particular center without having more information,” a spokesperson said. “It is our intent and hope that all employees experience the culture and environment that makes Bright Horizons feel like home to them.”
Private early-education centers like Bright Horizons fulfill an integral need in the U.S. economy, where neither paid parental leave nor preschool is fully universal. More than forty states offer public preschool, but restrictions ranging from income requirements and age of enrollment to limited state funding and open seats dwindle the number of families able to take advantage of preschool options. Even in the four states where universal preschool exists, that universality is highly restricted. In Vermont and the District of Columbia, seats are reserved for children aged three and older; in Oklahoma and Florida, four and older—which requires working parents with babies or toddlers to find alternative arrangements. Parents who are able to stay home have reason to place their little ones in centers, too: in a 2016 report, the National Center for Education Statistics found that children who had no regular early care and education arrangements the year before kindergarten scored lower on reading, mathematics, cognitive skills, and approaches to learning. Children who received center-based care the year prior to kindergarten also outscored children who received only home-based relative care in all four categories. For many families, finding quality care for young children is not just a privilege but an imperative.
Bright Horizons, which can be found all over the United States and internationally, was created in the mid-1980s to give parents a childcare center where they could expect consistent, quality services across all locations. The majority of Bright Horizons centers are employer-sponsored, which means the company enters into a multiyear commitment to run a center near or directly on its client’s work premises, and exclusively serve that client’s workforce—a model that significantly cuts down costs for the company. A significant financial investment from Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, helped the company to grow quickly. By 1997, Bright Horizons reportedly cared for around eleven thousand children in about one hundred thirty centers; by 1998, it had merged with CorporateFamily Solutions to become Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the largest for-profit provider of employer-sponsored childcare, and the only publicly traded childcare provider, in the United States. Today, the company operates more than a thousand locations and counts among its clients federal agencies, universities, hospitals, large banks, white-shoe law firms, and transnational corporations.
In terms of labor, Bright Horizons has an advantage over other childcare centers because it offers structured days and regular hours to its employees. Many Bright Horizons locations staff classrooms with a lead teacher and an assistant teacher, though specific teaching roles can vary from center to center. At my mother’s center, classroom spots were often filled with the maximum number of children permitted under state law, which meant that a kindergarten prep teacher effectively oversaw twenty children. If things went without a hitch, then the day was always structured the same. (A spokesperson for Bright Horizons noted that the infant classrooms are less uniformly structured, determined by “children’s own nap and feeding needs.”) The teachers served breakfast, oversaw silent reading time, led “circle time” where the children might practice their vocabulary or math, and watched the children during outside playtime. It took some effort, but the teachers worked with their class to develop the lesson plans.
“The kids propose what they want to learn about,” my mother explained to me over the phone. “We wrote it down, then the class voted on the topics. Then I asked them what they want to know.” Their questions would vary wildly: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do parrots live?” “Why is candy sweet?” “How tall am I?” “What is Valentine’s Day?” Despite the randomness of the questions, the answers were always fruitful: cooking was an opportunity to explore a range of topics—chemical reactions, the color palette, addition and subtraction. This was one of my mother’s favorite aspects of Bright Horizons. “You know,” she said, smiling, “the children are always more engaged when we learn about the things they actually want to know.”
After lunch was served, the snot cleared, the potty-time overseen, the sticky hands washed, the accidents mopped up, and the children had been tucked in for their afternoon nap, the teachers in charge of children older than babies could finally take their first real break of the day. While one teacher left for an hour, the other stayed behind with the children. My mom typically used nap time to research the answers to the children’s questions and then design lesson plans. Then, the children arose from their naps and the day roared back up. They ate their mid-afternoon snack, read or played more, and if the weather still cooperated, they went outside again until their parents arrived for evening pickups. Throughout the day, the teachers also made sure to meticulously document each child’s day with photographs and notes to give their parents later.
It takes hard work on the ground to keep children safe and happy, and each age group presents its own challenges: the babies and toddlers are mobile but clumsy little machines who disobey orders, tire fast, soil themselves often, and require a lot of standing, bending, and lifting. A couple of years ago, my mother asked to be switched to a class of older children or else she would be forced to resign—her knees ached so much that the short walk between the metro station and her apartment building seemed insurmountable.
While researching this story, I learned that Fortune had selected Bright Horizons Family Solutions as a “Best Place to Work” in eighteen different years. When I shared this fact with my mother, she scoffed. “People here leave as soon as they find something better,” she said. Even the teachers at the top of the pay range, who made $18 an hour, had trouble making ends meet: in northern Virginia, the living wage is $17.44 for a single person, and higher with every additional family member. Other applicants to the center accepted offers for $13.50 or $15 an hour, but never stopped looking for other jobs to supplement their income.
Some of the pay issues were offset by benefits that other childcare centers don’t offer, like paid sick leave, the option to work—or not work—on days with inclement weather, and disability and health insurance. Bright Horizons was also flexible with granting longer unpaid leaves of absence, which was particularly helpful to immigrant teachers who wished to take longer trips home and have their job waiting for them upon their return. There were retirement benefits, too, but none of the women with whom I spoke—including my mother, to my dismay—took advantage of the company’s matching program. I suspected that the lower pay made it easy to prioritize a larger paycheck over future savings that might or might not ever vest.
Still, the director struggled to replace teacher assistants, which meant that the administration filled their spots with floaters, who were limited in their ability to help. (Not assigned to a single classroom, the floaters did not always know the children’s names, preferences, and quirks, nor could they really take on planning roles.) The bulk of the teaching, and documenting the children’s day—for up to twenty children—could fall entirely on one lead teacher for weeks on end. It took the director almost four months to find a permanent teacher assistant in my mother’s classroom. “I almost quit one day,” my mother told me over the phone. “Between 7:30 AM and 12 PM, they sent me three different floaters … without regard for how it would disturb the kids or the teachers. After that day, the director started looking [for a permanent replacement] more seriously but I still saw maybe three teacher assistants in my classroom that summer.”
Teachers seeking professional advancement faced a different kind of frustration. Bright Horizons offers an online Child Development Associate (e.C.D.A.) credential, which it says might open doors to better pay or even a promotion if the teachers complete the required 120 hours of coursework. Some months ago, while we were spending the day together in her D.C. suburb, my mother mentioned in passing that she’d enrolled. She was eager to find a position with less physical strain, and was willing to take on the additional homework. I was running errands in my Washington neighborhood just a few weeks later when my mother called to say she’d dropped out of the eCDA program. It was only superficially her choice. She’d committed to the course with the school’s approval, only to learn at the last minute, again and again, that the center would not send a teacher to cover her class during the hour she’d requested off. My mother gave up on the course after missing the virtual class for the fourth time. (According to a spokesperson for Bright Horizons, three thousand teachers have graduated from the e.C.D.A. program.)
Miss Uzo had faced a similar dilemma. She joined the organization with a $15 wage after being told that her master’s degree made her competitive for a director’s assistant position. The option would be on the table after a year, the center administrator told her. Miss Uzo did the math. It would be a tight budget after taxes, her $900 rent, and car expenses, but she was willing to wait for the title. At the one-year mark, she did not even bother nudging Bright Horizons for a raise. Her promotion to assistant was coming, she thought. Two years at the center had passed by the time Miss Uzo accepted that, in her view, the director had no intention of giving her a shot. She left the center soon after.
At the local public school where she teaches now, Miss Uzo earns almost twice the money she made at Bright Horizons. The way she sees it, the low pay and investment is an industry-wide problem across the private childcare sector, which, unlike public schools, is largely nonunionized. Nationally, the median pay for childcare workers is $10.72, and $14.32 for preschool teachers; for the 2017–2018 school year, public school teachers made an average salary of $60,477. Recounting her private sector experience over the phone, Miss Uzo told me: “They don’t even consider you a teacher.”
Her complaints about Bright Horizons, and my mother’s, are mostly run-of-the-mill workplace issues, mild irritations that made their daily experience more unpleasant than it ought to have been. In many instances, the teachers at the center had brought up their concerns, whether in relation to their pay or to staffing, to the director on several occasions before giving up, as there seemed to be no meaningful mechanism—or time—for escalating even the most pressing issues. Some workers solved the problem by leaving—hence the high turnover rates in the industry—but many more put their heads down and remained in the private childcare industry, fully aware that their options for well-paying work were limited. Though she loves teaching and caring for little children, my mother once told me, “If I could go anywhere else, I would.”
In an ideal world, workers would not have to leave to reach greener pastures. They would stay and fight, or rather, have their unions fight on their behalf. I’ve personally benefited from these kinds of union-won protections in my work in government (a little more than a quarter of the federal workforce is unionized). Over the course of my career as a lawyer, I learned that even the fiercest advocates, trained at the top law schools in the country, can always use an effective labor representative on their side to better their work environment, obtain fairer compensation, secure opportunities for professional advancements, guarantee consistent protections, and force their employer to right past wrongs. The more I spoke to my mother and her colleagues, the more obvious it seemed that working with a labor union could allow Bright Horizons to fundamentally change the lives of thousands of childcare workers in the private sector. Yet, out of nearly eleven hundred Bright Horizons centers, only one location is unionized.
Back in 2017, Ryan Weiner, the parent of a child enrolled at Bright Horizons in downtown Brooklyn, reached out to the United Federation of Teachers after learning about the paltry compensation of his daughter’s teachers. He got in touch with the organization’s Brooklyn Borough Office, which happened to be located a few doors down from the childcare center. The U.F.T. organizers on the project, Ilene Weinerman and Howard Schoor, told me that they had organized care workers at nonprofit centers before, but never a private childcare facility.
There were plenty of reasons to expect resistance from the company: Bright Horizons was flush with resources. In 2009, the company paid the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis L.L.P. $10,000 to lobby Congress on the Employee Free Choice Act. A partner there once praised the law firm’s E.F.C.A. “Defense Kit” as a tool that “includes everything employers need to … make unions irrelevant.” The bill eventually failed in the Senate.
According to U.F.T. organizers, Bright Horizons started its counter-union operation at the Brooklyn center as soon as it became aware of the union involvement, by sending down a three-person team from its corporate offices. For nearly six weeks, someone from the trio showed up almost every day. Teachers reported being told that they were a family, and that bringing in the union would change that family atmosphere. They also reported being quoted exorbitant amounts of money for dues, and were told that the union would spend their dues on expenditures that would not really benefit them. This team routinely scheduled meetings to encourage face-offs between employees who were on the fence or emphatically against the unionization effort, teachers told U.F.T., and employees who were outspoken in favor of it. These tactics stoked tensions at the center and made a hard day’s work even harder for the teachers. (A spokesperson for Bright Horizons was unable to comment on “matters related to ongoing labor negotiations.”)
Despite the company’s efforts, the employees unionized in a razor-thin vote. The union has been negotiating a contract with management for the last two years, a process that continues to present challenges. According to U.F.T., Bright Horizons sent a letter to parents linking a tuition hike to increased wages. This summer, U.F.T. filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. According to the union, Bright Horizons disciplined a branch employee who was active in the union without first bargaining with U.F.T. On another occasion, U.F.T. says, management insisted that employees remove the black U.F.T. buttons they wore as part of a union campaign. But there have been improvements, too. Though the contract is not yet finalized, U.F.T. has been able to negotiate a layoff plan with management that would first ask for voluntary departures—in light of the high turnover rate—with compensation and a right to return, before making involuntary layoffs by reverse seniority. (Bright Horizons has also since trimmed its backlog of owed annual raises at the downtown Brooklyn center.)
In the grand scheme of things, the teachers’ wins are small—and this is the only center that has been able to organize. But they represent a crack in the status quo, an opportunity for a fairer deal for the thousands of employees, mostly women, who bear responsibility for Bright Horizons’s economic success. The company understands the financial risk of progress all too well: in its annual corporate report, the company noted that “[we] may experience difficulty in attracting, hiring and retaining qualified teachers due to tight labor pools, which may require us to offer increased salaries, enhanced benefits and institute initiatives to maintain strong employee relations.”
The company can certainly afford it: in 2018 alone, Bright Horizons recorded $1.9 billion in revenues and a gross profit margin of over 24 percent after costs of services, which include “payroll and benefits for personnel, food costs, program supplies and materials, parent marketing and facilities costs.” Bright Horizons also benefited from the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which slashed the federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent in December 2017. Three days before President Trump signed the tax cut bill, in anticipation of then-chief officer Stephen Kramer’s promotion to C.E.O., the company’s Compensation Committee voted to increase Kramer’s compensation package to include a base pay of $408,500 and to make him eligible to receive more than $2 million in stock, in addition to a $510,625 bonus. Last year, Miss Mahin’s pay went up from $15 to $15.50 an hour, while my mother says she never got a raise.
A few months ago, after Bright Horizons made it impossible for her to remain in the e.C.D.A. program, my mother called me to talk about leaving her classroom. “Maybe I can go back to school,” she said. My mother meant real school. We’d had these conversations before, on the tail end of an exhausting week or when her paltry paycheck hardly seemed worth the trouble. She understood the hurdles to landing a desirable position in the public school system, or in any other industry, at this stage of her life. With only a high school education, a sometimes-thick foreign accent, and a childcare-heavy résumé, my mother’s exit options were dim.
The prospect of seeing my mother enrolling in college scared me. As an overcredentialed millennial and a lawyer well-versed in consumer financial protection, I am all too familiar with the exorbitant cost of higher education, even at online and vocational schools. The “aid” in financial aid is rarely free anymore. I have read horror story after horror story describing the devastation, emotional as much as financial, of spending years on a degree to discover that no meaningful pay raise awaits on the other side—only a swelling pile of student loans, the perpetual fear of defaulting, and the looming threat of ruined credit.
There was another option for Bright Horizons employees committed to staying in early education. As of July 2018, the company promises to pay for college tuition, fees, books, and other out-of-pocket expenses up front. A few conditions apply, however. Participating employees must be pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at one of four options: for-profit colleges Ashford University, Rasmussen College, or Walden University, or Northampton Community College, a public institution in Pennsylvania. (All offer online classes.) Enrollees must also remain at Bright Horizons for eighteen months after completing the degree, or reimburse the company for a portion of the benefit. A spokesperson for Bright Horizons confirmed that 1,278 teachers were enrolled in the company’s Horizons Teacher Degree Program as of September 6, 2019.
Gently, I cautioned my mother to stay at Bright Horizons. If she could ice her knees, then perhaps she could hold on just a while longer, at least until she became eligible for Social Security benefits. Things might get better at work in the meantime, I told my mother, knowing there was absolutely no chance. Not without a union.