We Need to Talk About Why Businesses Are Opening Up Before Child Care

For the past few months, workers across the nation have been tasked with operating as close to business as usual amid the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that this was thrust upon working parents — who make up 41 percent of employees between the ages of 20 and 54 in the US — without any meaningful consideration for the well-being of their children felt, frankly, unsurprising.

For decades, working parents have long had to prioritize their jobs over their families. They've had to balance budgets that put child-care costs pennies under what their paychecks brought home. They've had to cobble together before-care and aftercare options because the typical school day was a few hours shorter than their shift at work. They've had to scramble when their kids got sick or their day care closed. They've had to return to work mere days or weeks after giving birth to pay rent and keep food on their tables, and they've had to sacrifice promotions and raises because they couldn't afford to sink any more dollars into babysitters.

Turns out, child care is no longer a requirement at all. It's barely a consideration.

But the latest step toward rebuilding the economy and "reopening America" has taken the sacrifices working parents make to its absolute worst conclusion. It's asking them to return to work — in most cases, outside the home — without any solution for the most basic requirement they have: child care.

As more than half of the states in the US have begun opening back up by easing restrictions on restaurants, retailers, and other small businesses, most day cares remain shuttered, nearly all schools are closed until at least the fall, and hundreds of summer camps have canceled their programming.

Turns out, child care is no longer a requirement at all. It's barely a consideration.

"It seems to indicate that parenting and the workload involved is severely undervalued," Kristene Geering, the director of content at Parent Lab and an early childhood special education coach, told POPSUGAR. "The real question is, what values are we declaring in the businesses we open up? If schools and day cares can wait, does that mean they're less important?"

Sarahjane Sacchetti — the CEO of Cleo, online resource for working families — agreed that caregiving is often perceived as "invisible" work.

"Plans to reopen highlight society's overall tendency to ignore the needs and struggles of working parents," she told POPSUGAR. "While this crisis has been challenging for all workers to adjust to, working parents — particularly working mothers — have been hit hard. For so long, the second shift of domestic responsibilities has fallen on the shoulders of working mothers."

The Few Options Working Parents Have

According to a survey conducted by Cleo, more than 50 percent of working parents still do not have child care, and a startling one in five have considered leaving the workforce entirely to care for their children.

For those who can't afford to quit their jobs, 37 percent have discussed asking family to move in to help them with child-care needs. Many are enlisting grandparents to help watch and homeschool kids — a choice that pits the needs of employers directly against public health recommendations to protect older populations who are more likely to suffer severe complications from COVID-19.

A startling one in five working parents have considered leaving the workforce entirely to care for their children.

Meanwhile, Sacchetti said that for families without those options, child care is becoming "more localized." Parents have solicited willing babysitters, organized nanny shares, and pulled together makeshift at-home "day cares" with neighbors in order to keep their kids safe while they prepare to reenter the workforce.

"All of these are options, but a lot depends on the socioeconomic status of the particular family," Geering said. "Someone who has the means for a nanny in the first place is going to have different solutions than someone who can't afford child care at all."

There are those who've depended on free public school versus private and those in urban communities versus those in suburban or rural environments. Yet just how widely parents' needs vary can't be considered when even the default offerings aren't available.

The government has offered some relief programs, like the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family leave for reasons related to COVID-19. Companies with more than 500 employees don't have to offer paid leave under the new law, so the the welfare of millions of Americans in industries providing goods, manufacturing, and vital services to most of the country is being left up to the discretion of their employers. For those workers who do qualify, the package amounts to 14 days of paid leave. Considering some states, like California, have already blown through nearly 11 weeks of shelter-in-place orders, this isn't even close to a placeholder for child care.

"It's better than nothing, but it's far from comprehensive," Geering said, noting that for those working parents who've contracted the coronavirus or are caring for someone sick from the coronavirus, "two weeks is sometimes not sufficient time to recover."

This "emergency" version of the Family and Medical Leave Act also excludes any benefits to workers who must care for a child yet are still technically able to telework. So a parent balancing remote work from home while caring for multiple kids of differing ages and needs has no federal recourses with which to rely — never mind experts warning that such a dynamic may have long-term mental and emotional side effects on children. It's another example of the prioritization of job performance over family health.

Child Care Stands to Get Worse After the Pandemic Ends

White House economic advisers believe the unemployment rate could surpass 20 percent, so, of course, jump-starting the economy is important. It's also understandable why schools and day cares remain closed. Following social-distancing protocols while caring for children, particularly babies and toddlers, is impossible, thus making the chances of spreading COVID-19 far greater.

"There's a real possibility that children returning to day-care centers, particularly higher volume ones, may increase risk and spread," Sacchetti said. "Fear is high on both sides. Families want to be sure that their children are in a healthy and safe environment, and child-care providers want reassurance that families are healthy as well."

Soon, we may see two classes of workers: those who can go back to work and those who have to stay behind to focus on child care.

However, once society deems it safe enough for all day-care centers to reopen, they may not even be able to do so.

According to one estimate, half of licensed operators won't make it through the pandemic, which will lead to a potentially permanent loss of 4.5 million child-care slots.

Short of the entire child-care industry collapsing, the National Association For the Education of Young Children also predicts that many day-care centers around the nation will have gone out of business, leaving working parents with even fewer options for their children than the less-than-ideal ones they had before.

"Child-care centers, especially the smaller, private ones, don't typically have the funds to ride out a closure that lasts for months," Geering said. "Add in a lot of parents who will possibly opt out of any child-care situation for at least several more months, and that is a hit many of those small businesses won't be able to recover from."

In fact, according to another survey, only 11 percent of child-care providers believe they can survive indefinitely without help. To that end, lawmakers requested a $50 billion bailout from Congress, but the latest stimulus bill includes merely $7 billion in block grants for states to use on child-care needs. That might seem like a windfall for a chronically underfunded industry operating on razor-thin margins, but it's, at best, not nearly enough.

At worst? It's downright insulting, particularly when you consider the total amount of workers affected. Most child-care facilities follow a 5-to-1 ratio of teachers to children, which means every day-care worker is essentially allowing upwards of 10 working parents to do their jobs. Without that worker's support, those five kids can't be cared for, which means that at least half their parents can't go to work. Considering our most recent census data counts 535,000 childcare workers, that means 2.6 million working parents rely on their employment — and that countless companies around the nation survive on the backs of the child-care industry.

Sacchetti agreed.

"Today's current child-care system is broken," Sacchetti said, noting that the challenges of caregiving and lack of child care that are making headlines now have always been an issue. If society allows for such far-reaching COVID-19 child-care concessions, it could derail what progress has been made: "We need to make sure that this crisis doesn't cause us to take a step backwards."

Unfortunately, it most certainly will. Soon, we may see two classes of workers: those who can go back to work and those who have to stay behind to focus on child care. And among that second class, women — who have disproportionately managed caregiving responsibilities — stand to see the greatest impact.

"There's already a divide between workers with kids and those without, and women are already held back in terms of both pay and opportunities for mothers over fathers," Geering said. "This will definitely increase that divide. As for long-term consequences, it's anyone's guess. My hope, though, would be that as a society, we finally realize just how vital child care is and make future laws and protections to reflect that realization."

But hope is a currency few parents can count on. Working families deserve much more, yet, if both history and our current action proves, they stand to get far less.