“No matter how much money they had, no matter how much support they had and no matter where they lived in the US, everyone experienced childcare problems,” said Kayla Lebovits, CEO of Bundle Childcare, after speaking with dozens of parents. She added, “Every parent experienced gaps in childcare weekly, if not daily. It’s like this unanimous connector between all parents whether it’s long-term, short term or backup care.”
The childcare system was bad for everyone. The parents who use it, providers who work in it and organizations that benefit from it. Cost and complexity was high but outcomes were spotty at best.
And the numbers speak for themselves. Pre-Covid, most parents (72% of Mothers and 94% of Fathers) worked. And childcare breakdowns were estimated to cost US Employers over $4 Billion in lost productivity and working families over $8 Billion in lost wages annually.
Yet, somehow no one predicted the negative impact parents’ inability to work would have on the economy until schools and daycares closed. Suddenly, finding solutions to the childcare problem has become essential.
Childcare is a Patchwork of ‘Plan B’s’
When childcare failed, we blamed ourselves. Or sometimes, our kids or partners. Because the truth, that after years of education and training our careers rely on luck, after parenthood, is unsettling.
Parents are desperate to keep their jobs. But they’re burning out. During a National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) call about guidelines for new childcare models, Reha Sterbin a member of Hand in Hand who works full-time, described how she and her husband are managing. “Like other parents in our situation, we have way too much on our plates and there are no good options for anybody these days. Just options that are less bad for your particular situation. For us, sending the kids back to school and daycare was never going to work.”
She explained that their nanny is on paid leave caring for her own family. “My husband and I divided our day into two shifts. We take turns so one of us will get focused work time for a while and the other is simultaneously trying to take care of both kids. Help one with remote learning, the other one with potty training and also try to simultaneously do our actual jobs. Thus far, our employers have been pretty understanding. But there is clearly some pressure that’s building up. This is a male dominated field (IT) and most of my coworkers are either childless or they’ve got a wife at home who’s taking on all of the child care responsibility.”
Or Inaccessible During Covid
As the recession deepens, millions of parents have lost their jobs yet are unable to secure new ones, without childcare. Sarah Gard, a member of MomsRising explained, “I had a full-time job that I loved in the hospitality and tourism industry that provided the majority of our family’s income. My husband works at a hospital. And our children were in preschool or they were being cared for by family members. It was a juggling act but it worked well for us. And then in March, I was indefinitely furloughed, our preschool closed and our family could no longer keep my kids because they’re in high risk categories.”
And if parents are fortunate to have access to childcare, it still needs to be affordable.
For Many, It’s Too Expensive
The cost of childcare can exceed that of housing in the US. Which leads many parents, often Moms, to drop out of the workforce temporarily or permanently. Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, researched the effects of childcare infrastructure on employment for her book Motherlands.
She said, “We found that expensive childcare is detrimental for women across all education levels but it is most problematic for those with a high school education or less. People with greater resources kind of work around the system. So, they’re going to work even if childcare is expensive.” Unfortunately, the pandemic has narrowed the already limited pool of paid care options.
The Impact Across Working Parents Is Profound but Uneven
Many small daycare centers have closed. And childcare workers, like many working parents, face impossible choices. Make a living or care for their own families. Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the NDWA is concerned about how these dynamics further strain domestic workers who are often from marginalized communities. She said, “The burden of safety and care for our children is falling hardest on low income families, workers and on Black and Brown families who have the least amount of power, resources and choices in this crisis.”
And the high cost of care which limits access and equity, is not a new problem.
Care Workers Remain at the Intersection of the Crisis
Women, many of whom are Mothers, dominate the largely unregulated care industry. Alicia Cleveland an NDWA member described the challenges she’s faced working as a nanny and caring for 3 kids of her own, “My kids have pre-existing conditions and are all doing online learning. To say that my experience during the pandemic has been difficult, would be an understatement. And now that school is back, that’s another level of stress and financial strain. The school district where my kids are has everything online and the experience has been horrible. They didn’t provide my oldest two with devices to do work and the one that my 5th grader received, had horrible tech issues. So, we ended up having to buy 3 laptops out of pocket. Which was a whole other stressor. But I could not risk my kids falling behind in school.”
Educators face similar challenges.
And Teachers With Kids Have Few Options
Educators, like other essential workers, also need care for their own families. Maggie Nelson said, “I’ve been a teacher for 10 years and Mom for 4 and I’m expecting my second child. Because of safety concerns first and foremost and also the lack of safe affordable childcare options, I ended up having to go on leave at reduced pay. My school district didn’t give me any other options, they are requiring teachers to teach from the physical classroom and are not willing to grant accommodations for teachers with health concerns or childcare responsibilities. …My reduced salary covers health care expenses and pre-K tuition but not much else.”
It’s hard to see a silver lining from the pandemic. But the lack of options has already led to innovations.
Care Delivery Options Are Evolving
New models and options, paid and unpaid, are popping up everywhere in Covid’s aftermath. This includes increased grandparent care, co-bubbling with neighbors, virtual camps and ‘pods’ which either involve paying a full-time teacher or creating super-sized versions of the nanny-share.
As pods and pod-hybrids become popular, the responsibilities of domestic workers are also changing. And new, more technically demanding roles, like that of ‘Online Learning Instructor’ have emerged. Ai Jen Poo explained, “We at the National Domestic Workers Alliance are deeply concerned about the new terrain that nannies are having to navigate, including new responsibilities without additional support or compensation.” In light of how quickly it’s changing the NDWA and Hand in Hand have created helpful guidelines for families and caregivers to ensure safety and fairness.
All Require Work Flexibility
The workday and school calendars were never in sync. And schools have been the primary childcare for most US families with kids over the age of 5. Now, with many schools partially or fully remote, parents require a different level of work flexibility through the pandemic. But according to a recent New York Times survey, “…More than three-quarters of working parents say their employers have not provided additional time off or money for child care.”
Although many savvy employers are offering paid or subsidized care, it’s still not the norm.
And Increased Investment
While lawmakers debate stronger policies and financial relief, employers eager to maintain operations and keep employees from leaving, are filling the gaps. When Kayla, whose company provides employer sponsored care, was asked about effective models, she said, “The most successful companies that I’ve seen have parent task forces or Employee Resource Groups that are actively trying to work with employers to find benefits and wellness programs that will work for them. When there’s no communication, it’s harder for the employer to find meaningful ways to help employees.” Yes!
She described a creative example that one employer facilitated for its employees, “I know one of our clients has a lot of employees who live in the same area. And so, they’ve partnered together to create pods with their children. They’re all taking safety measures and rotate from house to house. So there’s not one parent that’s responsible for the pod every day. They’re almost ‘carpooling’ around the houses and sharing the responsibility. And that allows the employees to get 8 hours of work done or a break while their child is at someone else’s house.” Brilliant!
Yes, it’s still complicated. And draining. But breakthroughs often emerge from chaos. The disparities in outcomes from the pandemic hold the answers to the future of work. And this time around, it must include the future of care.
Many thanks to Kayla Lebovits, CEO of Bundle Childcare, Leah Ruppanner Author of Motherlands and the nonprofits, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Hand in Hand for sharing their expertise!
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