Black child care and early childhood education workers from across North Carolina gathered Tuesday for a digital town hall demanding dignity, respect, and the passage of a “robust child care package” during the pandemic that would help protect and defend families and child care workers in the state.

More than 100 child care workers, many of whom were still on the clock or parents themselves balancing children on their laps, Zoomed in from North Carolina’s most populous cities, its most rural regions, and as far away as the Outer Banks to join the virtual gathering organized by the North Carolina chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), MomsRising, and the North Carolina Justice Center.

The workers who participated in the digital town hall are responsible for the care of thousands of children across the state and in the era of COVID-19, they are also considered essential workers who provide child care to other essential workers who do not have the option to stay home with their children. Despite the critical role they play, the child care and early childhood education workers in Tuesday’s town hall reported feeling unsupported, under-resourced, and largely disrespected.

Early childhood educator Shirley Torrence, who owns a five-star licensed child care center in North Carolina, said her center cared for over 30 children and was in the midst of expanding when the pandemic hit. Everything came to a stop, Torrence said, and she was forced to lay off employees as the number of children enrolled dwindled to 11. As the pandemic wore on, a family exposed the center to COVID-19. Torrence was forced to shut down her center for a few weeks, upsetting parents who relied on its services. As an educator and child care center operator, Torrence said too often people in her field are perceived as “babysitters,” rather than experts who care for children during their most formative years. In the town hall, Torrence said she did not feel “cared for.”

“We were promised the HEROES Act, we were promised hazard pay. We didn’t get any of that,” Torrence said, referencing the $3 trillion stimulus bill rejected by the Senate that included a substantial investment in child care and $1 trillion in state funding.

Maimah Ellis, a five-star licensed family child care home provider in business since 2001, has continued to provide care in her home during the course of the pandemic—a decision she said she struggled to make because her husband has pre-existing health conditions that make him more susceptible to getting the coronavirus.

A poll taken during the town hall showed that the biggest concerns among the child care workers represented were low wages and lack of enhanced benefits for providers, as well as the safety and health risks associated with operating during the pandemic. Earlier this month, the first coronavirus-related death connected with a daycare center was reported in Eastern North Carolina. As of Aug. 6, there were 19 clusters and 173 cases associated with child care facilities across the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services began publicly reporting clusters in child care and school settings in late June, as more child care centers began reopening.

All of the workers who participated in Tuesday’s town hall were Black women, many of them new to organizing for workers’ rights. Their entry point was We Dream in Black, a 2016 initiative launched by NDWA in Durham, North Carolina, to organize Black workers in the care sector. The initiative has since expanded to Raleigh and Charlotte, with membership encompassing a wide range of domestic workers, including house cleaners, nannies, medical and non-medical caregivers, and home care workers, among others. In 2018, the initiative released a two-part report focusing on Durham and Atlanta, Georgia, outlining the issues these workers face as well as a series of recommendations for improving workplace conditions.

Chanelle “CC” Croxton, the organizing director for the North Carolina chapter of NDWA, said what is “desperately needed” in North Carolina is a “just recovery” of the child care system.

“We want to tell federal and state lawmakers it is time to do your jobs,” Croxton said. “We have been doing our jobs, parents have been doing their jobs, providers have been doing their jobs, administrators have been doing their jobs, and we need our lawmakers to do theirs. We need them to recognize the value of a well-functioning and well-resourced child care system and to really protect and defend our early childhood education system.”

The organizations behind the town hall are calling on Republican North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to demand that the U.S. Senate pass a comprehensive package that makes an investment in child care of at least $50 billion, supports K-12 education, extends the $600-a-week boost in unemployment benefits, expands paid family leave and earned sick days, and gives families no-cost testing, care, and vaccinations to fight COVID-19. In May, Democratic representatives in North Carolina, including Julie Von Haefen, who joined the town hall, proposed a bill that would have appropriated additional CARES Act funds to child care providers. The $121 million would increase bonuses for child care staff, provide PPE to child care centers, and designate an additional 52 local child care health consultants. The bill stalled in committee and has not received a vote.

Child care workers are critical to American families, but remain some of the most undervalued workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the median hourly wage for child care workers is $10.31 and more than one-third live in families with income below twice the poverty line and cannot afford child care for their own children. These are disproportionately workers of color, 95.6% of whom are women.

Beth Messersmith, the campaign director for the North Carolina chapter of MomsRising, a grassroots organization fighting for economic security for moms, women, and families, said during the town hall that the child care system in the U.S. was already “hanging by a thread” before the pandemic, and now “that thread is unraveling.”

“Child care programs that were already operating on the margins lost income due to COVID-related closures, had to find extra money to buy PPE, and discovered that the families they had long relied on suddenly could not pay,” Messersmith said. “Without additional support, half of child care centers may not be able to reopen and stay open and we are already seeing these struggles across North Carolina.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.