Whether their schools go primarily online — as the Los Angeles Unified has announced — or employ a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, as imagined in New York, families across the country are confronting the same question: Who’s going to take care of the kids this fall when they’re not in the classroom and parents are working?
Within weeks, struggling child care providers will need to be ready. In fact, we’ll need many more of them. Our children’s health and growth, their parents’ ability to work and the nation’s economic recovery all hinge on that readiness. And it won’t be enough for lawmakers simply to bail out child care centers. Child care workers and parents need the public’s help, right now.
As recently as 2015, only 15 percent of child care workers had health insurance through their employers. As a result of low pay, nearly half were on some type of public assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened their situation; many child care centers were forced to suspend operations in March.
Now, when workers return, they’ll face an elevated risk of coronavirus infection by virtue of their interactions with children and parents. Any policy remedy to fortify child care must guarantee health care access.
Just as important, we need to ensure that child care workers have access to paid family leave, another necessity for any policy mechanism. Even before the pandemic, they encountered contagious illnesses at work that, without ample time off, they risked spreading further. Inevitably, some will become sick with COVID-19. They’ll need time to isolate and recover, and income to keep paying their bills.
The effect of these policies should be a boost, not a detriment. Research into California’s paid family leave policy found that it didn’t hurt businesses but eased their costs through a reduction in employee turnover.
Such support scratches the surface of the reinforcement that child care operators will require to survive the pandemic. The whole child care system needs $9.6 billion each month to sustain itself through the crisis, according to an analysis from the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy. That figure would include emergency child care for roughly 6 million children of essential workers, full pay for child care workers, and prep work for full reopening, among other provisions, the analysis shows.
Many child care operations were struggling financially even before the virus hit, running on shoestring budgets because the care is so labor-intensive. Center directors often reported they fought an uphill battle just to pay a living wage. They likely do not have extra income to ensure compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the pandemic era.
For a lot of them, the pandemic and its economic fallout have made closure the only option. Though most were technically eligible for financial relief under the federal CARES Act, some lacked the ability to apply or didn’t receive the aid because they lacked banking history.
With the child care sector pleading for public support, lawmakers have an ethical obligation to listen and act. Whatever relief state and federal policy makers agree to, it must go beyond aid for operators and directly lift up the workers — the very backbone of the sector. It’s not just humane and the right thing to do. In practical terms, it’s an absolute imperative to negotiating the historic health and economic calamity that’s enveloped all of us.
But let’s take it a step farther. Let’s make this a turning point. Let’s make our treatment of child care workers a model for how we treat and support all families.
The pandemic has made the necessity of universal health care seem obvious. It’s never made sense for health care to be tied to employment — and it makes even less sense when sick people lose their jobs because they can’t work. We can change this.
Likewise, the pandemic has laid bare the lack of support we provide families. For parents who need or want to stay home to care for their children, we must provide compensation. Most European countries do this. For example, in 2018, German families received on average the equivalent of $250 a month for each child. The economy there hasn’t suffered as a result.
In fact, the concept has even more agency now, since keeping kids home — and away from group settings — might reduce their coronavirus infection risks. If we can bail out corporations and banks, why can’t we do the same for families and children?
Elizabeth Palley is a professor and director of the doctoral program in the School of Social Work at Adelphi University. She is co-author of “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy” (NYU, 2014).