Ellisa Blake is Fairfax County School Aged Child Care head teacher and SEIU Virginia 512 union member.
As our Fairfax community is preparing to return to school in just a couple of weeks, we’re also approaching a major opportunity to transform our county for the better. While the Board of Supervisors moves closer to passing a collective bargaining ordinance, workers are uniting in our union, SEIU Virginia 512, to ensure that the Board provides the meaningful rights necessary to strengthen workers’ voices and improve resources. Like many county employees, I am pushing for the right to collectively bargain. My colleagues and I are in this fight because of our love for Fairfax families and our dedication to providing essential services.
My name is Ellisa Blake. Every day, I educate and care for the incredible children in Fairfax County. For more than two years, I’ve worked in the county’s School Aged Child Care (SACC) program. I’m one of many county employees tasked with empowering local families through comprehensive support. Guiding developing humans can be messy and difficult. Still, my colleagues and I love our work and go the extra mile daily to help children play cooperatively and grow emotionally. Through original programming, we constantly seek ways to introduce our children to ideas and experiences that challenge them to solve problems, think outside the box, and create something exceptional. All this requires high levels of expertise, patience, and energy.
During the pandemic in 2020, we were among the very first to offer full-day programs in schools for working families. We took every measure to create the safest environment possible and we taught children proper disease prevention habits. We frequently adapted to new safety standards and changing circumstances. Supporting Return to School (SRS) teachers were pioneers in creating healthy and engaging classrooms in the midst of a pandemic. Because of our success, FCPS teachers were looking to the systems we had in place for guidance on how to create a safe learning environment when they returned to in-person school months later.
That’s why it’s troubling that so many in SACC and throughout the county workforce are overworked, overwhelmed, and struggling to get by. We face inadequate staffing levels, last-minute communication about county decisions, and insufficient wages. SACC teachers largely cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. Inexplicably, numerous SACC employees are categorized as “non-merit.” This means that many essential caregivers in Fairfax County are denied health care, benefits, paid time off, and are forced into part-time work. Numerous qualified educators are forced out of the program because their position offers no reliable way for them to provide for themselves and their families.
Workers’ rights and quality programs are intertwined. Data shows that industries that unionize see significant improvement in the services they provide, and it’s not hard to see why. When organizations support workers, workers are able to take care of themselves and their communities. And who deserves a higher standard of care than children -- our future community leaders? There’s currently an empty seat at the decision-making table that needs to be occupied by employees working directly with the community. We must have a say in negotiating our wages, benefits, and working conditions. Our voice should be represented, especially in times of emergency. We know most intimately what is needed in our programs and for our families. Through collective bargaining, we could develop more comprehensive programs, minimize wasted resources, and support practical policy choices. We could attract the best applicants and retain our most qualified workers. SACC’s unique before-and-after school program could be a nationwide example of exceptional, community-based childcare. It’s time for us to elevate Fairfax County to new heights with strong collective bargaining.