After working under an expired contract for nearly two years, the union representing workers at the city’s 360 day care centers voted last week to authorize a strike. If contract negotiations with the city don?t move forward soon, says the union, the cent ers? teachers and support staff–about 7,000 employees–could walk off the job as soon as October 10, leaving the parents of about 60,000 kids with no place to bring their children while they are at work.

The contract for day care staff at the city-fund ed centers ran out on December 31, 2000. These centers provide care to families who earn up to about $36,000–or 250 percent of the poverty level. Negotiations with former Mayor Giuliani inched along, according to Raglan George, executive director of District Council 1707, the union representing day care and head start workers. But since the World Trade Center attacks, he said, the talks have halted. With a $5 billion budget deficit, City Hall officials told the union they have no funds to negotiate.

But now that Mayor Bloomberg has finalized a new contract with raises for the teachers union, DC 1707 officials say they won’t budge on their demands, least of all for their teachers. “We’re looking for parity on all levels,” said Mike Green of DC 1707. City and state regulations require that day care teachers, like all teachers, be certified before they start work, said Green, yet, “With the current teacher contract, our veteran teachers are now getting about $5,000 less than the starting Board of Education teachers.” Under the new United Federation of Teachers contract, a teacher starts at $39,000.

Some child welfare advocates say funding is available to do that. State Senator Liz Krueger has urged Governor Pataki to redistribute excess federal welfare m oney from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to support the city’s day care system, which is allowed by federal law. With the decline of the welfare case load in recent years, New York State has had hundreds of millions of surplus TANF fu nds at the end of each year.

Sandy Socolar, policy analyst for DC 1707, pointed out that if the governor would allow TANF funds to be spent directly on child care services, then New York City could use $119 million of that welfare money to replace the Child Care Block Grant funds it now spends for parents in welfare-to-work programs. The city could then use that block grant money for union negotiations and day care expansion, she said. The mayor wrote in favor of using TANF money for child care in his l etter to Congress regarding reauthorization of the federal welfare law in May. Calls to the governor’s office were not returned.

In the meantime, the union plans to announce a strike date on October 9. Some day care centers have begun warning parents ab out a possible strike, and many do not know what they will do if it happens. Vernice Potts sent her three children and now sends her 2-year-old granddaughter to the Marcus Garvey Child Care Center in the Bronx. Because she works all day in securities, and her granddaughter’s mom is in school, she said, “I still don?t know how I’m going to do this. It would be an inconvenience to find someone that we could trust to keep my granddaughter.”