It’s 9 a.m., right after the morning drop-off rush at M&M Daycare, a residential child care facility in a fourth-floor apartment in New York City’s South Bronx neighborhood. Milagros Carbajal, the owner who is known as Ms. Millie, is at her desk fielding calls and getting ready for the day ahead. Speaking from her corner office, which also functions as a supply closet for all the accouterment of a preschool—paint supplies, workbooks and Play-Doh—she says she strives to make the residence a “home away from home” for the children she serves.
One of those children, a pre-K student, has arrived and heads straight for a baby doll that has been resting, upside down with limbs askew, in a toy cradle overnight.
The doll wasn’t the only one asleep at the day care the previous night. M&M, located in a six-story apartment building a few blocks north of Yankee Stadium, is an extended-hours facility open until 1 a.m., caring for children whose parents work late shifts as restaurant staff, home health aides, sanitation employees and security personnel. As a group family child care provider, M&M can care for up to 16 children—a dozen from ages six weeks to 12 years, plus four additional school-age students—per shift.
Carbajal’s evening shift is currently full. She says parents check in constantly to see if slots have opened up, which underscores the demand for extended-hours care. The inaccessibility of such services has a negative economic impact.
More than 500,000 New York City residents didn’t seek employment in mid-2021 because of unmet child care needs, according to a 2022 “blueprint” from the administration of Mayor Eric Adams. Expanding access to facilities open during non-traditional hours—which, according to New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services, includes the period from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.—is a priority.
At a hearing on child care held in September by the City Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity, Michelle Paige, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Child Care and Early Childhood Education, said: “We must do more to support families and to grow the number of providers offering care during non-traditional hours.”
Someone Has to Be There for Our Families
The challenges described in the city’s blueprint are ones that Carbajal, 43, knows from firsthand experience. She founded M&M in 2010 after being unable to find child care that accommodated her 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. work schedule in the hotel industry. The apartment where she lived at the time didn’t meet the requirements for a day care facility, so she moved into her current pre-K space in the Bronx with her two children, Madison and Mason—M&M’s namesakes—and learned the basics of the business. A plaque in her office reads: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
“This actually used to be my bedroom,” Carbajal says, pointing to one of the classrooms that is decorated with Curious George wall art. She now resides in a house a couple blocks away, while her mother, Gladys Vilela, who manages M&M’s 3-K program in the same building, lives in the apartment.
Outside her old bedroom, Carbajal has a gallery wall of memories from the day care. “Every year, we have the Easter Bunny come,” she says, pointing out a photo from a past spring. “The Easter Bunny is actually me. And here I am as Santa Clause. I’m pretty much everyone around here.”
Carbajal says the child care providers on the block work together to meet the needs of parents at different hours, regardless of where a child is enrolled. “We figure it out amongst ourselves,” she says. “We don’t have a choice. Someone has to be there for our families.”
One of the programs that M&M collaborates with is Bright Smiles Family Daycare V, which Venecia Tavarez opened down the street four years ago in her parents’ apartment where she grew up after immigrating from the Dominican Republic as a child. “The kids call my mother grandma and my father tío,” she says. “It’s like they’re seeing their grandkids running around.”
Tavarez says the families she works with respond well to her partnership with Carbajal. “If she has kids, and I have space, I take them in and vice versa,” Tavarez says. “The parents feel like they’re under an umbrella. They don’t have to go searching around.”
Family Providers in the Gap
Carbajal and Tavarez play a critical role in the broader early childhood education landscape, according to Steven Morales, the New York policy director at All Our Kin, a nonprofit group that aims to train, support and sustain family child-care providers. Home-based day care services are preferred by parents because of the flexibility they offer, including extended hours, Morales says. “Many families don’t just work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and it’s typically the most essential jobs like nurses and firefighters and grocery store stockers who are working at non-traditional times,” he adds.
Because of the connections they build with parents, many home-based providers work out personalized and informal arrangements with families. Yet, oftentimes, these families have opposite needs, which, according to Morales, means that some providers are “open with the early workers and still up with the late-night folks.” A report published in September by the New School estimates that family child care providers, navigating dueling parent schedules, work between 50 to 55 hours per week on average.
According to the same report, in the Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx, where M&M and Bright Smiles are located, 69% of child care seats are in home-based programs, which predominate in majority Spanish-speaking neighborhoods across the city and the outer boroughs, where parents often face longer commutes to work.
While family child care providers fill a critical gap for many families, Morales says it is still challenging to find care during non-traditional hours because of limited capacity and the expenses associated with extended-hours care, which include retaining adequate staff to work shifts while abiding by mandated staff-to-child ratios.
Carbajal agrees that budget constraints are the primary obstacles preventing day cares, which operate on thin margins, from offering extended hours. That is why she founded a consulting company with a business partner that advises day care providers on how to structure and afford extended-hours programs. So far, she has advised six clients on non-traditional hours and four have applied for city approval. One of them, in the Concourse neighborhood, has begun operating.
More Than a Job
For home-based providers, child care is a community service, but it is also a livelihood.
Tavarez says that some people assume that operating a day care is easy because it involves children, but it can be challenging to balance the financial demands of running a business while attending to the needs of families. “This is my company,” she says. “It is not just a day-to-day job.”
While she has to make tough choices in managing the business, building strong relationships with her students keeps her going. “Of all the roles that I fill—business owner, boss, caretaker—I think that teacher is definitely my favorite,” Tavarez says.
The importance of a day care as a business is an idea that Carbajal came to appreciate over time. At first, accustomed to wearing suits and still attached to her professional aspirations in the hospitality industry, she found it difficult to reconcile the image she had of herself as a businesswoman and the work she was doing out of her apartment with other people’s children.
As she attended workshops for entrepreneurs in the Bronx, Carbajal began to understand the critical role she was playing in her community and the impact she was having on families. “I realized that I’m way more than a babysitter,” Carbajal says. The biography on her Facebook profile puts it this way: “My passions are children and business,” a sentiment accompanied by corresponding emojis—a line graph and two small yellow figures holding hands.
The Mayor’s 2022 blueprint underscores the impact of child care access on the local economy, estimating that the unavailability of the service leads to $23 billion in reduced economic output and $2.2 billion in lost tax revenue.
Carbajal says she is proud to contribute to the economy of the city and the Bronx specifically. In addition to enabling parents to go to work, she is helping women in the community, including her staff, learn the skills to open their own day care businesses.
Eukeyta Gregory, 25, who covers the evening shifts at M&M, dreams of doing just that. She has worked in child care since she was a teenager, but wasn’t aware that day cares operated at night until she began working for Carbajal last year.
When Gregory arrives around 6 p.m., the children have already eaten dinner, so she occupies the younger ones with activities like coloring while she helps the older children with homework. Before rest time, she tries to get everyone moving. “They have so much energy,” Gregory says. “We bounce around and dance before they need to settle down and get some sleep.”
Being away from parents at night can be more difficult for children. “That is why I try to give them a lot of love,” she says. “I actually prefer working the evenings because I can form more of a bond with the kids that way. When they go to sleep, I lay on the floor near them, and I rub their backs and comfort them.”
On a normal shift, Gregory leaves just before 1 a.m. after the last child has gone home. When she achieves the goal of opening her own day care business, she plans to follow Carbajal’s model. “I am definitely going to make it 24 hours,” she says. “You can’t just leave your child with anyone.”
Finding a Place
This is something that Narolin Morales knows well. She started looking for child care with flexible hours when her daughter, Nya, was an infant. “I needed a place that would suit my hours and my child, so I was just Googling and Googling until I found M&M,” she says. “I would have had to quit my job if it weren’t for them.”
Morales works evenings as the supervisor of a concession stand at Madison Square Garden. During the day, Nya attends M&M’s 3-K program on the third floor and at 3 p.m., goes upstairs for the evening until her mother finishes work. “What they do saves lives,” Morales says. “We need more of these places.”
New York City Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, the primary sponsor of a proposed bill on universal child care, faced similar difficulties when trying to find a day care that would accommodate her work hours after her daughter was born in November 2021—the same month she was elected to her current office. “Literally, what I was doing was just calling different day cares that I saw online,” Gutiérrez recounted during the City Council committee hearing in September.
At the same hearing, Paige, of the Office for Child Care and Early Childhood Education, fielded questions on the availability of extended-hours care and pointed to a new policy that will provide additional compensation for providers who operate during non-traditional hours and serve children relying on subsidized vouchers. A request from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services to increase the pay differential for these providers from 5% to 15%, was recently approved by OCFS. Paige said that she thinks raising awareness about this development is “where we’re in the position to make the biggest impact right now.”
Last year, the average hourly wage for child care workers in New York was $16.92. Home-based day care providers tend to earn less. According to an estimate in the New School report, the median home-based child care worker in New York City was paid $10.61 an hour in 2021.
Morales of All Our Kin describes the increased pay differential as a positive development but adds that there is still work to be done in making extended-hours care more accessible. Along with other child care advocates, he recommends increasing compensation for family child care educators, as low pay contributes to shortages. He also recommends exploring additional funding or grant mechanisms as incentives for providers to offer extended-hours care so that the services are available for all New York City families who need them.
For the parents who do have access, extended-hours care can help change the trajectory of their lives. On the day of her college graduation, one young mother whose daughter had attended M&M told Carbajal that she would not have made it to that milestone without her child care service.
“I never knew what I was doing was in such high demand,” Carbajal says. “I only did it because I needed it.”