Crystal Barksdale takes care of kids, and she's proud of it.
But a year ago, when the state Department of Education changed its computerized system of payments to day care workers who mind the children of low-income families, Barksdale and hundreds like her suddenly found themselves being paid weeks or months late, or not at all.
"It was a really good source of income before they changed the system," said Barksdale, 31, who has cared for children professionally for a decade but was forced to give it up in July last year. "I closed my business because I wasn't getting paid."
Barksdale, a mother of three, just managed to stave off foreclosure on her house last summer, she said, and now makes ends meet by working as a secretary for her husband, who runs a steamfitting business.
With the help of Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union, which about 5,800 day care workers in Maryland joined in September, Barksdale and her colleagues have been agitating for education officials to fix the payment system so that everyone gets paid on time.
A survey conducted by the union in January of 300 day care workers found that 49 percent had been unable to meet household expenses because their state checks came late. Sixty-six percent reported receiving payments more than a month after they were due.
A handful of the workers lost their homes, said Sue Bull, the local's director of child care and community services. Bull and other union representatives met yesterday with a small group of day care workers, including Barksdale, outside the Education Department's headquarters in downtown Baltimore in a bid to have officials there explain whether they had made any progress in fixing the payment system.
No meeting took place. Bull said the state schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, sent word that she would sit down with the group on Tuesday. "But they don't have a good record of following through," Bull said.
The Education Department's assistant superintendent for early childhood development, Rolf Grafwallner, said by telephone yesterday that the worst of the crisis is over.
"We are right now at what you might consider regular operation of the system," he said. "We have no reported backlogs."
After the new computerized payment system was launched in February 2007, he said, "we had a number of providers who didn't get paid in that period of transition."
The department then made "a high number of emergency payments," Grafwallner said, to day care workers to make up for checks that had not arrived.
"They dwindled to a just a few in fall and winter," he said. "The situation wasn't as much of a crisis as it was in spring and summer."
Grafwallner acknowledged, however, that in the past week, the department had received calls from more than dozen day care providers asking about the status of their payments. "There are, we know, some delays, some inquiries," he said.
Sharrelle Felipa, 23, a day care provider, said yesterday that she last received a check from the state Oct. 2.
"I usually get a check every two weeks," she said. "The bills are piling up, and they need to get paid."