At the beginning of the pandemic, as schools closed their doors and the economy shut down, workers at Seattle’s Tiny Tots Development Center quickly realized they would need to change how they provided care to the kids they saw each day. They had to pivot to helping school-age kids with remote learning, make sure everyone remained socially distant and deal with the fear that someone may contract the virus.

The past 20 months have been difficult for the workers, and they’re still going through hardships, Tiny Tots CEO Angelia Hicks-Maxie said, as the pandemic continues. But a note of appreciation from the city of Seattle, in the form of a one-time payment during the holiday season, will help.

More than 3,500 of Seattle’s child care workers will receive one-time payments of up to $835 this month, city officials said Tuesday. The payments, totaling nearly $3 million, are part of a $128 million spending plan that came from federal COVID-19 relief funds. That plan was approved by the Seattle City Council in June.

Recipients work at 537 different programs, ranging from large centers to those operated out of someone’s home, that account for 75% of providers within the city limits, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington. Those programs provide care to approximately 20,000 children, according to the city.

“The reality is they are the ones who have been on the front line of the pandemic, serving our children and families from the start of COVID-19,” said Dwane Chappelle, director of the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning, during a Tuesday news conference.

Fune Tautala, who works at Kids’ Club after-school program, called his colleagues’ efforts to care for kids as families began to return to work and needed child care “nothing short of a miracle.”

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“I’m glad there is an emphasis on what we do,” he said during the news conference. “I am truly, truly grateful.”

Of the 3,500 workers, 69% are people of color, and 59% of the programs are located in southeast and southwest Seattle, which historically have had fewer child care resources than other areas. In Rainier Beach, for example, 29% of eligible children are enrolled in a licensed child care center or preschool, according to data from the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The payments are a boost to a workforce in what has long been a strained industry that reached crisis levels during the pandemic. In the Puget Sound region, the mean annual wage is $35,120, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A survey conducted by Child Care Aware of Washington found that more than a third of child care workers across the state are on public assistance.

Meanwhile, providers have closed for myriad reasons — rising operational costs, staff shortages or burnout, for example — leaving parents scrambling to find available and affordable spots for their children. In June 2020, 359 providers in King County were closed, and a year later, the number had decreased to an estimated 104 closed providers, accounting for 4,607 child care spots. Statewide, 27% of providers closed at least temporarily, according to Child Care Aware.

Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González said workers bear the burden of the child care system, which she noted operates as a broken market. The Department of Education and Early Learning has made several child care investments since during the pandemic: It launched an emergency child care program for essential workers’ children at the start of the pandemic, and in February, it provided grants totaling $2.3 million to more than 500 providers and caregivers.

To apply for the funds, which were managed and distributed by the department and Child Care Resources, providers that are licensed with the Department of Children, Youth and Families have to be open, accepting children and have enrolled at least one child since March, according to the city. The managers received 621 provider applications, and 84 weren’t accepted because they weren’t in Seattle or hadn’t been open enough during the pandemic to qualify.

Hicks-Maxie, of Tiny Tots, said her employees were excited when she told them about the payments, and many said they would use the money to make purchases they had been putting off. Some were planning to buy holiday gifts for their kids, and others wanted to pay for more pressing tasks like home repairs. But the recognition mattered, too.

“Every person was so thankful that somebody stopped to take the time to appreciate what they have put themselves through for the last 20 months,” she said.

Information from Seattle Times archives was included in this report.