For millions of working parents like myself across the country, the last two weeks have been chaos. I’m on a call with my boss as I’m working with my preschooler to thread beads onto Frozen friendship necklaces. I’m darting upstairs to edit a document and then downstairs in time for the Zoom call with my first grader’s teacher. Yet, even through it all, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My job is secure and flexible, I am able to telework, and no one in my home is immune-compromised. For the majority of families for whom this is not true, the hectic scene above sounds pretty damn good right now.
As millions of schools close their doors and parents across the country work from home, the experience of the coronavirus pandemic for many is setting aside their anxieties to do the work of raising a family. Many of these families are tasked with keeping a toddler’s attention, a middle schooler’s mood at bay, or a teenager’s anxiety from skyrocketing while simultaneously earning a living.
More than ever, the true value of child care and the workers who provide it is readily apparent in homes across the country. Child care is the long-neglected backbone of our economic and public health infrastructure. It's an expensive necessity for working families staffed by underpaid and undervalued workers — 93 percent of whom are women, and disproportionately women of color and immigrant women. As this crisis risks bringing providers, educators, and families to a breaking point, lawmakers must act immediately to support the child care industry and close the long-term gaps that brought us here in the first place.
In communities across the country, child care providers are already being ordered to close their doors with an uncertain timeline ahead of them. With tens of millions of parents working from home, providers are facing grave economic risks.
Providers in states with shuttered schools are already seeing the impact, and states have instituted a patchwork of solutions. Vermont Governor Phil Scott ordered all child care centers closed, as did officials in Kentucky. New York and Colorado officials begged child care centers to remain open, and Seattle — the epicenter of one of the country’s largest regional outbreaks — is experiencing a mass shortage of providers.
This uncertainty threatens the stability of child care providers during and after this crisis. While many Americans will need no introduction to the high cost of child care — often competing with and surpassing college tuition — many might not realize the razor-thin margins of providers themselves.
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Most cannot afford to provide basic benefits to their employees, including health insurance or paid sick leave. Workers themselves receive subsistence incomes — hardly enough to pay back student loans they may have accrued while obtaining a degree or putting food on the table for their families. And this workforce doesn’t exist in a vacuum — they, too, are feeling the impacts of school closings in their own households, sending them home to care for their own children.
A median hourly pay of $11.13 an hour — with no benefits, no health insurance, and no paid leave — leaves these workers particularly vulnerable to the expected impact of this virus on the economy at large. It’s one reason why I was relieved to see Congress take action on unemployment insurance — providing states with the resources to expand and strengthen the money available to those whose livelihoods have been taken. Expansion of SNAP benefits and ensuring Medicaid recipients won’t foot the bill for testing and treatment of the virus are likewise key supports for this low-wage workforce.
But far more must be done if we hope to relieve the pressure. Most child care assistance programs reimburse providers based on the days children attend — not the number of children enrolled. In light of mass school closings, Congress and state officials should immediately allow these payments to continue based on enrollment instead.
If families who pay the full cost of their child care cannot continue to pay for their child care bills, providers do not have money coming in. Direct payments to all providers closed by the virus — or by government order — will likewise need to be distributed. Payments from families facing layoffs and other economic costs of this crisis should likewise be replaced by emergency public funding. Lastly, the cost of additional supplies and substitute workers will be critical to helping this vulnerable workforce weather this storm.
Few sectors of our economy are as neglected and undervalued as child care. This virus — an enormous test of our public health and economic infrastructure — risks bringing child care providers to a breaking point. The long-term impacts already projected by economists will mean many facilities will be forced to limit enrollment, cut short their hours and potentially close entirely.
While this virus will cause untold levels of pain and tragedy, virologists agree it will eventually pass us. Parents will return to work, and schools will slowly reopen. But tens of millions of families like mine will still depend on the incredibly resilient efforts of child care workers themselves. And unless we act now to support them, many of us might find there is no child care system to return to.
Melissa Boteach is the vice president for Income Security and Child Care at the National Women’s Law Center and mother of two. She is a Harry Truman and George J. Mitchell Scholar with a Master's of Public Policy from The George Washington University and a Master's of Equality Studies from University College Dublin.
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