In the COVID-19 economy, we are running out of time to prioritize child care

In the COVID-19 economy, we are running out of time to prioritize child care
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In March, working families across the country started to scramble. Our homes were transformed into makeshift classrooms, summer camps and daycare centers as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and child care facilities. 

For working mothers with young children, balancing a career and responsibilities at home during the coronavirus crisis has meant bearing an astronomically outsized share of the burden — a burden that for many exhausted and isolated mothers is not sustainable; a burden which, if we do not act, could result in a significant portion of women being pushed out of the labor force, erasing the progress we have made.  

While critical support for small businesses – child care centers included – was provided months ago through the CARES Act, only a quarter of the child care market received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. Now as fall approaches, the Senate must pass the HEROES Act. This comprehensive coronavirus relief package would enact a number of child care provisions, including an additional $7 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant, $850 million through the Social Services Block Grant for child and family care for essential workers and $100 million in additional home visiting funds for child care programs. 

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The HEROES Act would help people like Sgt. Tanisha Woods. As a correctional officer at the Lane Murray Unit correctional facility in Gatesville, Texas, and president of AFSCME Local Union 3920, she hasn’t missed a day of work since the pandemic began. But as a mother of four young children, she’s also had to balance being a full-time mother and an essential worker.  

“I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t have my mother and father helping out with the kids at home,” Sgt. Woods said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”  

“If I didn’t have them, I would have to resort to a child care facility, which just isn’t safe right now—but that’s not to say they couldn’t be if they had proper PPE and testing. And to make things worse, our facility had a bad COVID outbreak at the end of March. It’s slowed down now, but it’s still scary because I don’t want to bring the virus home to my kids or my parents.”  

As the first female secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor federation, I’ve pushed unions to prioritize paid family and medical leave. In 1975, only 39 percent of American mothers with children under six years of age were also in the labor force — a percentage that has increased to 62.4 percent because of decades of hard work from policymakers and the labor movement. Now, for the first time in my 25-year career, I’ve found myself on the heels of a crisis threatening to upend everything women have fought for. 

Unless Congress ensures that we have a safe workplace to return to, along with concrete safety solutions rooted in science for child care and our school systems, this crisis will continue to escalate. Coronavirus cases will continue to spike. More lives will be lost to a cruel virus, which Black and Latino people are almost twice as likely to face fatal exposure to. And we know economic recovery is impossible unless people are healthy.  

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Frankly, it will be impossible for parents with young children to go back to work without a real plan for child care. This child care crisis is an especially prevalent issue for parents of color, who are more likely to be single parents and to experience child-care related job disruptions while also being at a greater risk for contracting the virus.

In order for child care centers to open, there must be proper safety measures in place, including adequate Personal Protective Equipment for both staff and children so families won’t have to make a terrible choice: miss a paycheck or risk their child contracting or bringing COVID-19 into the home.  

Two of the largest of the AFL-CIO’s 55 affiliated unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have put forth extensive, in-depth plans on how to safely reopen America’s child care and school facilities. These include social distancing strategies, guides on disinfecting and, perhaps most importantly, demands for the infrastructure and resources to test, trace and isolate new COVID-19 cases.  

But as the unemployment crisis continues and more families are no longer able to pay the thousands of dollars required to send their children to care, without some form of public aid or subsidy, we run the risk of these child care centers cutting safety corners. Without support, many centers will shutter completely, making economic recovery impossible. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call to the utter necessity of the child care sector in our lives. And that includes expanding access. Union members have an advantage in access to child care, either at work or as a benefit. Now it’s time for Congress to wake up and act before it’s too late and expand access, invest in our nation’s child care infrastructure and protect our children. 

Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, serving as the chief financial officer of the federation and overseeing its operations.