Crystal Rogers, owner of Cozy Couch Family Day Care in Martinsburg, W.Va., finally feels appreciated. It took the pandemic to make that happen.

For too long, she says, society has looked down on day care — as somehow less worthy than school. And no wonder. Child care is one of the lowest paid occupations in America.

"We're not baby sitters...I've been wanting to say that," Rogers says. "We go to trainings. We do all the things that a professional child care provider does."

Child care workers, almost all women, teach, feed and care for children from infancy up until they're ready to go to school while their parents are at work. It's hard work, Rogers says, and also essential.

Now, child care is being held up as critical to the economic recovery. Since last year, Congress has delivered $50 billion of relief funds for the industry, a historic sum.

And President Biden wants that level of investment to continue. As part of his American Families Plan, he's asked Congress for $225 billion over 10 years to make child care affordable or even free for working parents. He wants to raise wages for those who work in the industry to at least $15 an hour.

The Democrats have answered with a budget framework that includes $726 billion for priorities targeting education and families, including universal pre-K and child care.

Many families at this day care center haven't had to pay anything for child care during the pandemic

To Rogers, it's already clear what a difference a big investment like that would make. In a way, it's already happening in West Virginia, thanks to the federal relief funds.

She charges $150 per week for babies up to 2 years old and $125 per week for children 2 to 12 years old.

But most of the families whose children go to her Cozy Couch Family Day Care haven't had to pay anything during the pandemic. That's because West Virginia has been covering the full cost of child care for essential workers since March 2020. The parents who use this day care include nurses and grocery workers.

The state has always subsidized child care to some degree. And some of the parents here qualified for subsidies even before the pandemic, based on their income. But the state is now paying Rogers more per child than it's ever paid in the past — a pandemic premium that is set to continue through the end of 2022.

"They kept us afloat," Rogers say. "They did us well, and they're still doing us well."

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Rogers has also received several grants from the state, in part for staying open. She's used the extra money to purchase more things for the children, such as books, puzzles and blocks, and to give her staff bonuses.

But she knows the infusion of cash is temporary. And that worries her.

"When it goes back to normal, whatever normal is, a lot of us are going to take a hit," she says.

Worker shortages signal that wages are still too low

The uncertainties about future funding are keeping a lot of day care centers from significantly raising wages, which would help them find workers.

A recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found four out of five child care centers were struggling with staffing shortages.

The group's CEO, Rhian Evans Allvin, says imagine you're a day care teacher, where "I'm doing high impact, high intensity work for less money than I could go make milkshakes at Burger King."

"It's not rocket science to figure out why we can't get the workforce back," she says.

Latoya Beatty, owner of Little Pandas Learn-N-Play in Martinsburg, has had a difficult time hiring all summer, and she blames all of the stimulus money in the federal government's pandemic rescue plans.

"I just feel like staffing has been more challenging because people are getting so much money from the government," she says.

She's set up interviews only to be stood up. She's hired people who then quit a week or two later. She raised the starting pay from $10 an hour to $12 in hopes of attracting talent. That brought in a few more applications, but it hasn't completely solved her staffing problems.

With lots of employers — from CVS and Chipotle to Amazon — all raising their wages, she faces a lot of competition for workers. So she wants to raise wages to $15 an hour, but right now that's a stretch for her business.

Back at Cozy Couch, Rogers also worries about competition for workers, but she has mostly family members on staff, including her own mother.

"Obviously I don't see her turning her back on me," she says with a laugh. "She's going to stay with me."

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