The rapid spread of COVID-19 is reminding us just how interconnected we all are. It’s also shining a light on the ways that our public and community infrastructure have long been lacking—especially when it comes to child care. As Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center writes: “Child care is the long-neglected backbone of our economic and public health infrastructure.” In response to the spread of the virus in the United States, child care centers and schools in most states have closed with immediate effect, and some will remain closed through the end of the school year. Our health and safety, and that of our communities, must come first. Yet, for the child care sector, this is like driving a tank over an already crumbling bridge—the already undervalued sector cannot withstand this pressure.

On the consumer side, parents—many of whom already have difficulty affording child care—are seeing their household incomes dry up. Parents Together conducted a survey of parents and found, not surprisingly, that families are struggling as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Two-thirds say they have either lost income already or expect to soon; 80 percent are worried about having enough money to cover basic housing and food costs within three months. Nearly half worry they will run out of money within the next two weeks. Half of the respondents are specifically losing income so that a family member can stay home with kids.

At the same time, we know that those who work in child care—primarily women, and disproportionately women of color—are some of the lowest paid and most undervalued workers in the country. They often lack health insurance or savings. Today, because of the pandemic, many are losing their jobs, or worrying about losing their jobs. As Congress passes bailout packages, these workers must receive priority, including making sure nonprofits and other child care centers are included in small business grants and loans and are required to continue to pay their workers.

So far, Congress has done very little to support the child care sector, early educators, and the child care needs of families. The first legislative COVID-19 response package to directly address child care was the phase 3 bill, which includes $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant to provide child care assistance to health care sector employees, emergency responders, sanitation workers, and other workers deemed essential during the response to the coronavirus—a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.

Here Is What Congress Must Do Right Now

Congress must do much more to ensure that families have the care they need, that child care workers have support, and that the child care sector survives, and ultimately thrives. What Congress must do to make this happen includes:

  1. Bail out families, child care workers, and the child care sector more broadly. This requires an investment of $100 billion to shore up the sector.
  2. Provide safe child care options for essential workers. Government must cover the cost and ensure the availability of safe child care options for those on the front lines.
  3. Pass paid family and medical leave and paid sick days for everybody. Families right now are torn between employment and providing child care; paid leave would give them some flexibility.
  4. Ensure unemployment insurance for caregivers. Families who lose their jobs because of the need to provide their own child care must receive unemployment insurance benefits.
  5. Provide additional support for all families, regardless of citizenship or other factors. This includes nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and direct cash assistance.

1. Bail out families, child care workers, and the child care sector more broadly.

An urgent priority for this moment is bolstering the child care sector—to make sure it does not collapse permanently as a result of this temporary shut-down—and shoring it up for a robust future. Unfortunately, the country is already starting at a deficit. The United States has historically underinvested in child care. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, most people did not have affordable, high quality care options that treat child care jobs as good jobs. The danger now is that even fewer options will be available once we’ve gotten through this.

Child care centers and family child care homes already have no wiggle room in their budgets. The cost of care is expensive, families cannot afford to pay more, and child care workers—primarily women and disproportionately women of color, are already underpaid. Even a short-term closure could become permanent for many child care programs, and could devastate the child care workforce, many of whom are already living paycheck to paycheck.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) surveyed child care centers and family child care homes in mid-March and found that 30 percent say they will not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant public investment and support that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent or mortgages, and cover other fixed costs. Meanwhile, about half say they are losing income because of families who cannot pay, and another quarter are losing income because they are reimbursed by the state based on attendance rather than enrollment for the low-income families they serve who receive child care subsidies.

An infusion of capital to fully fund child care programs will allow them to continue to pay their staff and rent while closed, and re-open their doors again once the worst of the health crisis is over.

An infusion of capital to fully fund child care programs will allow them to continue to pay their staff and rent while closed, and re-open their doors again once the worst of the health crisis is over. As Elliot Haspel writes for Romper, “there is no economic recovery without adequate child care,” as workers return to their jobs and need child care services. Therefore, we must recognize this and fund our child care programs, including home-based child care options—at adequate levels to aid both workers and the overall economic recovery.

Congressional Action

Congress must invest $100 billion in the child care sector. This is more than some have called for, but we believe it is what’s needed to fully meet the needs. As the National Women’s Law Center has laid out, and Senators Tina Smith (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have supported in a detailed letter to Senate leadership, there are several key priorities currently needing significant investment. Here are details from their letter, with notes in brackets where we would add to their recommendations:

  • Pay providers to cover their ongoing operating costs when they are closed so their financial security, and the security of educators they employ, is not threatened. This must include centers as well as home-based providers, such as family child care homes and family, friend, and neighbor care. [Funding for child care programs must be used to continue to pay child care staff and rent.]
  • Eliminate copayments or tuition for families during this crisis and ensure that providers are still paid the full amount for that enrolled slot.
  • Provide paid sick leave for educators and provide funding to providers to fully cover this cost. [The funding for providers must come up front, instead of as a reimbursement tax credit, as in the Families First Coronavirus Response act.]
  • Find and pay for substitute educators, where needed and when available. [Ensure that the pool of experienced care providers are tapped first, and extensive safety measures are taken.]
  • Provide higher levels of compensation, such as hazard pay for child care providers and educators serving children of frontline workers or operating for longer hours. [When creating these compensation levels, consider that these workers are already vastly underpaid, so compensation must also reflect living wages.]
  • Help state or local agencies or organizations keep track of child care programs that are closing and those that have available slots, in order to identify child care providers that may need assistance and to match supply and demand.
  • Purchase materials for providers that cannot afford or find supplies on their own. [This must especially include sanitation and safety supplies.]
  • Pay for staff at call centers and child care resource and referral agencies to respond to the needs of child care workers, including to assist them in offering guidance to the families they serve as they cope with the current crisis.
  • Provide training and medical support for child care providers on health and safety practices in response to the virus, available in all relevant languages.“

These are the right priorities.

2. Provide safe child care options for essential workers.

Every community must find a safe place for children of those on the front lines of the crisis—nurses, doctors, home care workers, pharmacists, hospital cleaning crews, transportation workers, and so on—to go while their parents or other family caregivers are at work. These essential personnel must be broadly defined, with an emphasis on making sure that those who are the lowest paid get the most support for child care. These workers must not be forced to make even more impossible decisions than the choices already in front of them. Most of the care options that these families were previously able to rely on are not there right now. Communal child care settings, for example, are potentially endangering caregivers, children, and their families. Relying on grandparents now has the risk of infecting the older generation, who may be more at risk from the virus. Nannies are being told they have to come to work—often on public transportation—when the health and wellbeing of themselves and their own families should come first. As a result, safely designed home-based care options may be the best option for many families right now.

Congressional Action

Congress should support every possible option for families, with a priority on the safety and health of children, caregivers, and families. Some states are already modeling what can be done to meet these immediate needs. For parents and other caregivers with infants and toddlers, states such as Vermont and Tennessee are reimbursing private child care centers in order to enable these centers to continue operating for emergency purposes. Tennessee in particular has set aside $10 million in COVID-19 emergency response and recovery grants for existing child care centers. In addition, as more emergency child care centers open, some will need licensing in order to operate. Michigan has made it easier to obtain a provisional license with “an acceptable plan to overcome the deficiency present in the child care organization within the time limitations of the provisional licensing period.” In Ohio, licenses can be granted to current child care centers that need to modify their operations for temporary relief, or to new centers created in response to the needs of the community. To prioritize safety, Colorado is proposing a reduction of traditional group sizes to allow for physical distancing, which also serves the purpose of keeping the adult-to-child ratio low. Additionally, an executive order signed by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz explicitly states “schools must practice hygiene and … distancing best practices.” These essential practices help to provide safe conditions in these environments.

Health care workers and other essential workers on the front lines tend to have nontraditional work hours and schedules, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. In such times of crisis, doctors and nurses often work longer hours for days on end. Home care workers generally work long days. Warehouse and delivery workers are working longer and harder than ever before. Any emergency child care programs must have twenty-four-hour options. Providers also need funding to pay for additional safety and sanitation supplies.

3. Provide paid family and medical leave and paid sick days for everybody.

With most child care centers and schools closed for safety, and many parents and other caregivers working remotely from home, people are working and providing child care at the same time. While older children may be able to engage in distance learning with little supervision during this time, for parents of young children or some children with disabilities, this is not actually feasible. The safest solution is paid family and medical leave so that parents can still get paid if they need to care for their children.

The PAID Leave Act, S.3513, introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), would ensure that families have the paid time to care for themselves and their loved ones. The bill would require the federal government to cover the cost of seven days of accrued paid sick leave, fourteen paid emergency sick days, and twelve weeks of paid emergency leave. The bill is expansive in covering workers regardless of employer size, covering the wide range of uses of leave time, and ensuring all family members who need care can receive it.

4. Ensure unemployment insurance for caregivers.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in the third COVID response package includes emergency unemployment relief through the end of the year. While it is not a substitute for child care support or emergency paid leave, it will help families through this challenging time by providing an extra $600-per-week boost to regular state unemployment benefits for claims. Furthermore, it will provide benefits to those not eligible for regular state unemployment benefits and who are out of work because of the COVID-19 crisis, such as gig workers and the self-employed; ensure an additional thirteen weeks of benefits for those who were already collecting regular state unemployment benefits when phase 3 was adopted; and fully fund work-sharing benefits that allow companies to reduce work hours for their staff but keep them on full payroll, and maintain their health and retirement benefits.

5. Provide additional support for all families, regardless of citizenship or other factors.

This virus is not discriminating based on where someone comes from, what’s in their bank account, or what their family looks like. Our policies must not discriminate either. Families need significant direct cash assistance, proportionate with their level of vulnerability. With the virus threatening everyone, every family—regardless of where they come from, who they work for, or whether they have lost their jobs—needs access to free COVID-19-related testing and health care. In addition, families who have lost their jobs will have trouble paying their bills, and so Congress should enact a nationwide rent and mortgage holiday or freeze, with no evictions. Additionally, many families have relied on school or child care programs to feed their children. Families need access to healthy meals throughout the coronavirus pandemic, as was included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. CLASP has laid out here both what is in that bill, and also additional measures needed, including increasing the maximum benefit for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that all families can afford healthy meals.

We Need Both Temporary Relief and Long-term Structural Change

This public health emergency is shining a light on the way our community and public infrastructure are inadequate to meet everyday needs—let alone the needs during a crisis. We already know this crisis will excacerbate long-standing racial, economic, and gender inequities. In the short-term, we need to meet the urgent needs. In the long-term, we must finally enact solutions to fix our public infrastructure, including our paid leave and child care system.