Minnesotans heard a lot about improving quality of care and pay for providers when the DFL legislative majority heavy-handedly pushed through a controversial child care unionization bill last spring.

What families and policymakers didn’t hear about was another so-called “benefit” that recently has been touted in prounionization efforts with home-based providers — leveraging a union’s collective strength to resist regulation.

This new messaging from union supporters ought to outrage parents, who depend not only on conscientious providers but on hardworking regulators to ensure kids’ safety once they’re dropped off at family day cares.

This spring, a Star Tribune series of stories won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing lax oversight of the state’s in-home day care providers, particularly when it comes to safe sleep practices that significantly reduce infants’ risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome.

Yet according to a Sept. 16 Star Tribune story, supporter Karla Scapanski drove home an alarming message to providers who had gathered in her Sauk Rapids living room: The value of a union in leveling the playing field with government regulators.

The bill passed this spring by Minnesota allows certain home-based day care providers — those who sign up to accept children whose care is subsidized by the state — to vote whether to unionize. While a legal challenge has temporarily blocked the law and the vote, efforts continue to convince the state’s home-based providers to become part of Child Care Providers Together, which is affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In an earthy and creative sales pitch, Scapanski compared in-home providers to skunks threatened by an angry bear of a government regulation system, with her point being that skunks are small but there’s strength in numbers. “Until we get a big stink going on, that bear is going to keep dumping on us,’’ Scapanski said.

According to the story, the audience liked what it heard. Joan Wenning, a licensed family day care provider from Holdingford, said in the story that rules sometimes don’t seem make sense and that providers rarely prevail if they challenge an adverse ruling. Kelly Martini of Avon said that providers are concerned about costly correction orders for technical violations.

Among the requirements held up as examples of micromanaging in the discussion at Scapanski’s home: the proper way to clean a diaper changing table, recertification requirements on the proper use of car seats and food guidelines specifying the amount of fruit in a serving.

These rules, while they may seem burdensome to some, are there for a reason. An improperly cleaned diaper changing station could harbor pathogens that harm small children. Car seat designs change, and ensuring that children are strapped in securely on field trips can save lives. The same holds true for the myriad other health and safety requirements for Minnesota day cares.

Union organizers in Minnesota can’t have it both ways. They can’t be advocates for improving day care quality while making a sales pitch to providers based on protecting them from overregulation. “I don’t see how this would improve home-based child care in Minnesota, which should be our focus,’’ said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who opposed the child care unionization legislation.

Contacted late last week, Jennifer Munt, AFSCME’s director of public affairs and public policy, said that the bear-and-skunks citation was one provider’s analogy. “Do not misinterpret her statement as the union opposing regulation and training,’’ said Munt, who added that a union would help providers “get the training and support they need to meet standards for health and safety.’’

Furthermore, “AFSCME does not defend bad actors, ” Munt said. For those who do have unfavorable inspections or reports, Munt said the union would “help child care providers comply with licensing requirements and corrective actions.’’ Munt believes that the union’s push for licensers, who often are also AFSCME members, to serve as “mentors” for day care providers also would enhance child safety.

Munt’s answers suggest that providers ought to be on guard against overzealous sales pitches. Her answers also raise the question: What would providers get for their monthly dues if they do unionize? Training and mentoring is already available through Child Care Aware, the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association and other organizations. The MLFCCA, whose annual fees are $35, also is a strong voice at the Legislature.

It’s not clear what the child care providers’ monthly union dues would be. (Munt declined to provide a ballpark estimate.) Providers need to ask detailed questions to ensure that dues are worth it. Parents and policymakers also need to stay engaged and ensure that kids’ best interests — not special interest groups — remain the top priority.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+