As the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective health and safety require the closing of many businesses, schools, and child care programs, the hospital personnel, home health care workers, grocery workers, delivery workers and others still going to work every day require safe child care options for their families. According to research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), half of all child care providers across the United State have closed. Thankfully, however, 15 percent remain open—specifically to care for the children of essential workers.
Washington, D.C., for example, has established six emergency child care centers. They are not full, but they serve an important purpose for parents who are still working during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as single mother Nacole Thrower, a patient service specialist at George Washington University Hospital who relies on the center at Marie Reed Elementary to safely care for her 3-year-old son, Hudson. In Ada, Minnesota, Little Learners Early Childhood Center is also serving the families of essential workers. As the only child care center in their rural area, Little Learners is more needed than ever, but without state funding, the owner, Karen DeVos, worries they may not be able to continue to operate.
Remaining open during a pandemic has been challenging—not only must these programs introduce many precautions to protect the health of their workers, the children in their care, and their families, but also they must keep going at a time when lower enrollments mean lower revenues to meet higher operating expenses. If policy makers really want to ensure that frontline essential workers can continue to go to work, they need to provide greater support to this essential sector.
States and Programs Need Federal Support
The United States has not had a substantial public solution designed to meet the child care needs of essential workers since World War II, when the Lanham Act established affordable child care options to meet the needs of the women working in factories while the men were abroad. It was an immensely successful and popular program that demonstrated how effective it is when the government views child care as a collective responsibility. The COVID-19 crisis is shining a light on just how significant our current deficiency is.
While the federal government has not yet made significant investments in seeking a solution to this child care crisis, it’s begun to show interest. So far, Congress has invested $3.5 billion into the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to address immediate child care needs, including to support child care providers and provide care to essential workers. But this is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Congress must bolster the child care sector—to make sure it does not collapse permanently as a result of this temporary shutdown. According to new analysis from CLASP and the National Women’s Law Center, this requires at least $9.6 billion a month.
Last month, Congress passed emergency paid sick days and family and medical leave to ensure families can take the time they need to care for their own health and their loved ones without risking their paychecks. Unfortunately, the White House insisted that these programs exclude about half the workforce. Government must extend this guarantee to all families who need it, not discriminate based on job size or type or any other factor. Furthermore, our unemployment insurance, nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and direct cash assistance programs must also serve all families regardless of citizenship, job type, employment classification or other factors.
States Must Prioritize Six Key Issues
Many states that ordered the closing of nonessential businesses gave child care programs the option to remain open. Others only provided the option to remain open to specifically provide care to the children of “essential workers.” Some opened up schools to serve child care needs, recognizing that prior to school closings, schools were not only educating school-aged children but also keeping them safe during school hours. As states take action to serve the child care needs of their essential workers, the experiences of programs that have remained open provide insights into six key issues that should be prioritized when crafting policy:
- covering the cost of child care for all frontline workers currently required to work, using a broad definition of “essential/frontline worker,” and covering the additional expenses being incurred by providers right now as they serve fewer children with more support and supplies;
- giving existing programs, including center and home-based options, the option to stay open to serve emergency personnel and others, and put those existing programs first in line for additional resources to meet this need;
- paying child care workers who are working premium pay on top of their base pay, and providing them paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, health insurance, and COVID-19 testing and treatment;
- providing child care workers with safety equipment, guidelines, and training;
- providing essential workers with options for child care coverage during long hours, evening hours, overnight, and weekends; and
- addressing the specific needs of infants and toddlers, children with disabilities, homeless children, English language learners, and others with unique needs, and providing mental health resources for children and their families.
1. Covering the cost of child care for all frontline workers currently required to work
The long underinvestment by the government in our child care system is more evident than ever. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of child care was out of reach for too many families. Even though parents are paying as much as they can afford, child care programs still often operate with tight margins. The government pays too little, and programs often barely make it from month to month, even with the too low wages of child care workers. Today, this challenge is exacerbated by the pandemic. Good, safe child care options must be free to all essential workers, and those providing the care should be paid more for their work. Some states are already showing how this is done.
In California, the governor issued an executive order to pay for free child care for essential workers, investing $50 million in state funding to pay for child care slots and another $50 million in reimbursements for child care providers to secure adequate health and safety supplies, providing slots for up to 20,000 children. The state of Colorado has ordered that child care will be free for essential workers at least through May 17, by extending a full tuition credit to all essential workers funded by a combination of public and private dollars from the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative. Massachusetts is also temporarily funding the operation of child care programs for essential workers, and not requiring any payments from the families relying on them.
In North Carolina, Oregon, New Jersey, and elsewhere, states are fully covering the costs of child care for essential workers who meet income criteria, and charging those who do not. In general, a sliding scale based on income makes sense, but in an emergency situation, getting people the support they need as quickly as possible is important. These income criteria may be acting as a barrier to getting the help families need.
It is important that these programs not only serve health care workers, but that they serve all workers who are leaving their homes to go to work during the pandemic—from delivery drivers to grocery workers to child care workers themselves. Most states have defined “essential worker” broadly when establishing their eligibility criteria.
2. Giving existing programs, including center and home-based options, the option to stay open to serve emergency personnel and others and put those existing programs first in line for additional resources to meet this need
Some communities have adequate child care supplies and many others have child care deserts. Families working right now need convenient child care options that they can feel safe bringing their children to. Meanwhile, as noted, child care programs often operate on the margins and struggle to keep their doors open during normal times. These programs—who already have experience providing care, who have been vetted and done the work to comply with health and safety regulations—should have priority to stay open and receive additional funding to help them serve fewer families (lower enrollment means receiving less revenue than they usually do) and acquire the safety equipment they need.
For example, in his executive order, the governor of Virginia “called on communities to provide emergency child care to young and school-aged children of essential personnel during this unprecedented pandemic.” The order says that existing child care providers can remain open to provide this care to the children of essential personnel. The governor further proposed that those child care providers who closed can reopen to serve the children of essential personnel as long as they comply with health and safety guidance developed to meet the current public health crisis.
In New Jersey, child care centers that desired to remain open to provide care for children of essential workers were able to apply to do so. Additionally, any home care facilities did not fall under orders for closure of businesses in the state. In Illinois, over 550 centers remain open under an emergency child care permit. And, over 1,500 home child care providers report that they are still providing care, many of them on the critical night and weekend shifts that a number of other child care centers don’t provide. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont are all prioritizing licensed programs as emergency child care providers (or mandating that providers be licensed). Families need to know their children are safe now more than ever. Relying on previously vetted programs should be the first priority for funding.
At a time when we are trying to physically isolate, home-based child care, including family, friend, and neighbor care, may be the best options for many families. States should ensure that these programs are eligible for state funds to support all the costs of providing free care to essential workers. States should also consider how to support nannies to safely work in people’s homes as a part of the solution.
In addition, states should fund state or local agencies or community-based organizations to track child care programs and parents’ needs to help match supply and demand and help parents identify appropriate child care options. For example, Illinois has created an online search function where parents can find available care options based on their zip code. In Vermont, Let’s Grow Kids is serving as the conduit for information about child care availability and parents needs.
3. Paying child care workers who are working premium pay on top of their base pay, and providing them paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, health insurance, and COVID-19 testing and treatment
States should pay the cost of providing premium pay on top of the base pay to all essential workers who are working right now, including those providing child care. This type of meaningful compensation is needed to recognize and value the vital contribution these workers are making to keep our families and communities healthy and safe during this pandemic. This premium pay should not be used to lower any worker’s regular rate of pay, or be used as a substitute for any overtime pay to which a worker may be entitled. In fact, it should be recognized that child care workers are already extremely underpaid, and raising their compensation to reflect the value of their work is an important short and long-term priority.
States should pay the cost of providing premium pay on top of the base pay to all essential workers who are working right now, including those providing child care.
Several states have already recognized this priority. North Carolina is providing bonus pay for child care staff providing services during COVID-19. New Mexico is also paying child care providers an extra $250 per enrolled child and paying the cost of insurance premiums for uninsured child care workers who test positive for COVID-19 (and their immediate household members). Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon are prioritizing emergency child care workers for COVID-19 testing. Other states should follow these examples.
4. Providing child care workers with safety equipment, guidelines, and training
Child care workers—as with all care workers during this pandemic—have been thrown into deep water concerning how to do their jobs in a manner that promotes public health and safety. The Centers for Disease Control has provided guidance for child care programs and the national nonprofit organization Zero to Three has offered guidelines specific to infants and toddlers, but there is a need for more, as well as safety equipment and training.
Since COVID-19 is transmitted through an infected person passing the infection through physical contact, or a cough or sneeze, ensuring safe conditions at emergency child care centers is critical. One of the concerns that initially led to school and child care closures was the potential for the rapid spread of the virus within large groups of people. Therefore, states should cover the costs of safety equipment and cleaning supplies for emergency child care providers. They should also implement careful cleaning, extra hand washing, and additional safety precautions, as well as issue clear guidelines for drop off and pick up, to minimize the number of people interacting.
Most states are limiting child care group sizes to ten or fewer. Colorado proposed the reduction of traditional group sizes to allow for social distancing, which also serves the purpose of keeping the adult to child ratio low. Washington’s Department of Health advises child care programs to limit groups to no more than ten total, as recommended by the CDC, in an effort to practice social distancing, and to keep the same groups together each day in order to minimize exposure. Montana Governor Steve Bullock has also issued a directive, asking child care centers to limit the number of children in their care, and to create groups of ten or less in order to practice effective social distancing measures.
5. Providing essential workers with options for child care coverage during long hours, evening hours, overnight, and weekends
Essential workers on the frontlines 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. States should make sure that there are twenty-four-hour child care options in every community to meet these needs.
Minnesota, for example, is providing grants to licensed child care providers who remain open to care for the children of essential workers that include additional funds for centers who remain open during nonstandard hours of care (however, these grants are not available to family, friend, and neighbor providers who are often the ones providing nontraditional hours of care).
6. Addressing the specific needs of infants and toddlers, children with disabilities, homeless children, English language learners, and others with unique needs, and providing mental health resources for children and their families
Caring for children is already a very skilled job and child care providers must be prepared to care for children’s unique needs. Some specific areas that we know require additional resources are the needs of infants and toddlers, children with disabilities, homeless children and English language learners. In addition, the disruptions of this moment and the stress of having family members on the front lines requires state investments in mental health support for children and families.
For example, Minnesota is providing $30 million in grants for child care centers and in-home providers, which offers a $4,500 monthly grant to child care providers with an extra $1,000 if the program serves children who have special needs or are English language learners or if the service is open during nonstandard hours, such as nights and weekends. Maryland is also offering specialized services for parents of children with special needs and Spanish language speakers.
Preparing to Re-Open
A key element of concern with most of these emergency measures to support child care programs is their expiration dates. States should extend the programs for much longer to address the safety needs of all families. In addition, the priorities for serving the child care needs of essential workers should be incorporated into serving the child care needs of all families, as states contemplate re-opening. Without child care solutions, too many parents, especially mothers, will not be able to be part of the economic rebuilding.
Without child care solutions, too many parents, especially mothers, will not be able to be part of the economic rebuilding.
Prior to the pandemic, parents, early educators, advocates, unions, grandparents and others were already fighting for universal child care and early education. Activists have been working for good care options for all families, and especially to ensure that families who are marginalized because of class, race, disability, family structure, and/or immigration status have quality, affordable care, and child care options, while also ensuring that the people working in child care, disproportionately women of color, receive the increase in compensation their work deserves. COVID-19 is causing new challenges, and also shining a light on just how interconnected we all are. Gender, racial and economic equity require that our government invest in comprehensive child care solutions that prioritize safety, affordability, quality, and the people who provide care.
For additional information about what states are doing to serve essential workers’ child care needs, visit:
The Alliance for Early Success
The Hunt Institute
The author wishes to thank Sarah Wood for research assistance and Karen Schulman from the National Women’s Law Center, Katie Hamm and Simon Workman from the Center for American Progress, Halley Potter from The Century Foundation, Sade Moonsammy from Family Values @ Work, Mimi Aledo Sandoval from the Alliance for Early Success and Danielle Ewen from Education Counsel for their insights and contributions.
header photo: People participate in an affordable child care rally at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, DC. Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images