Parents for Safe Child Care

Job marked by low pay, long hours

Shelly Burtis cares for as many as 7 kids, and she still has to take on other work

Monday, June 24, 2002


When Shelly Burtis greets the first child to arrive at her day care, she's wearing pajamas.

It's one of the many small compromises Burtis works out with parents of the children she cares for in her Shoreline home. In this case, she's agreed to take 5-year-old Ruben Castillo at 6:45 a.m. only if she can change after breakfast.

From that early hour on, Burtis tends to a merry-go-round of seven children, two of them her own. Until 5 p.m. or so, she'll put kids on the bus to school, play games, make crafts, take them outside to play and help with homework when the school bus returns.

It's a job marked by long hours and low pay, and one that fewer people in King County are doing. Burtis is one of about 1,540 licensed in-home child care providers in the county. In 1995, there were 1,930.

Many are being driven out by low wages, mounting regulations and inconsistency in how individual licensors apply state rules, said Linda Tyner, president of the Washington State Family Child Care Association.

No one knows exactly how many providers are "going underground" by caring for children without a license. But, Tyner said, it's a growing problem.

"It doesn't pay to do licensed care anymore," she said.

Burtis, 34, doesn't make a living doing only in-home child care. A renter lives in a small house out back, and she does bookkeeping and makes vinyl signs on the side.

Her income fluctuates quite a bit, depending on how many children she has in her care. Burtis charges between $550 and $750 a month, depending on the age of the child. But some of her day care income goes back into toys, food and supplies.

For Burtis, being a day care provider means opening her house -- and a large chunk of her personal life -- to children and their parents. They know, for example, that Burtis is a motocross enthusiast -- and she has 4-foot-high trophies to prove it. And when she puts in a new concrete patio later this summer, some of the parents will be there to help.

"It is a business, but it's a personal business," Burtis said. "My day care parents know a lot about what's going on in my life."

She's always looking to make improvements, whether it's putting in new shelves, making nap blankets or brainstorming activities. Outwardly, Burtis is as casual in her manner as the jeans and sweat shirts she favors. But she sets a firm foundation of rules.

When 5-year-old Jonmac Nelson walks in proudly bearing a measuring tape his father gave him, it quickly becomes a toy -- a means of measuring heads, the table, whatever's at hand. When he comes in with a toy sword, though, it's quickly confiscated.

Jonmac has been at Burtis' day care for about two years, and his parents are grateful to have found someone who works so well with their child, who has a learning disability.

"She does a lot of extra stuff in terms of the activities with the kids, the way the day care is set up, the way she handles him," said Jonmac's father, Jon Nelson. "She's become a friend of ours as well as a provider."

A former bookkeeper for her husband's company, Burtis got into the child care business in 1997, when her boys were 3 and 5 years old. She was in the midst of a divorce.

"Once I became a single mom," she said, "I decided there's got to be a way I can have a job and still be home with my kids."

She rustled up her first clients by taking out ads, making up fliers -- even knocking on the doors of day cares around the neighborhood, looking for referrals.

State licensing requirements dictate how many children Burtis can care for, outline what kind of physical environment she must provide and set general parameters for how to meet the developmental needs of children.

Burtis, who doesn't have help, is allowed to care for 10 kids if they're all over the age of 3; eight children over 2 years old; or six if she is caring for two children under 2. Those limits include her sons.The family's dining room is given over entirely to day care. Vinyl nametags mark each child's place at the table. One wall is flanked by stainless-steel shelves that hold art supplies and bins of toys and books. Outside, a large play set stands in a bark-filled bed.

Burtis tried to follow a monthly lesson plan for a while but found that the unpredictable comings and goings of the children made that impossible. Drop-off times are in a constant state of flux: Two dads work flexible schedules; one mom is in school, and every quarter her child care needs change."It's really hard for me to plan stuff," she said.

Burtis hasn't had a major licensing violation, but she gripes about "bogus complaints" -- calls parents make to a state hot line which must be investigated. They remain on the provider's record, whether they were determined to be valid or not.

The biggest challenge for an in-home provider, she said, is accepting such a demanding work schedule.

"The long hours are tough. Calling in sick is almost never something that happens."

But almost in the same breath, Burtis explains why she likes her job so much:

"I like seeing the kids grow."

Parents for Safe Child Care is a 501(c)(3) non-profit