COVID Amplifies the Child Care Crisis

by Kathryn Millhorn

We seem to be operating in crisis mode 24/7 these days. But even before the pandemic, there was a wave building threatening to swamp employers and employees alike: the childcare crisis. Finding safe, reliable, affordable and available childcare costs families time and money. Local civic leaders are working tirelessly to address this growing problem right here in Thurston County.

A recent report from Columbia University explains that “For over two decades, access to childcare in the U.S. has been diminished by high costs, poor quality, and burdensome regulations. As a result, parents are pushed out of the labor force…According to a study done by the Department of Health and Human Services, childcare costs an average of $11,000 per year, per child, which is more than the price of public college in 33 states.”

In July 2021, the Grays Harbor, Mason, Thurston Child Care Task Force showed that “Fifty-one percent of parents stated that the cost of care was unaffordable for their families [and] the need for after-school care is a pressing concern that was echoed by 47% of respondents.”

A USA TODAY analysis of new Census data shows that “Americans missed more work than ever before due to child care problems in 2020, and the burden was shouldered almost exclusively by women.”

In addition, the analysis showed that “the number of women with child care-related absences in any month more than doubled from 2019 to 2020. Women accounted for 84% of all workers who missed work in the average month last year due to child care issues–a five-year high.”

David Schaffert, President/CEO of the Thurston County Chamber, said, “The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated conditions that existed before the pandemic. Child care was already expensive, and child care providers already operated with thin margins.”

April Root operates a small child care center in Rochester. She said, “I have one classroom that is licensed for 17 children. Every time a child tests positive, we have to close for ten days. We closed right before Christmas from a positive exposure, told to close for 14 days, returned for 1.5 days and had to close again but this time for 10 days….we just re opened 3 days ago. We recently had to close can’t afford to close again. I’ve worked too hard to lose this business. But when we close five times in 12 months, it is hard to keep going.” 

Employers are feeling the pinch as well. The Task Force also found that “Childcare issues have significantly impacted business operations across the three-county region. The top three most common issues are employee absences from work (21%), distraction at work due to childcare instability (18%), and tardiness (15%).”

Then you must add COVID-19 into the mix. “Concerns with COVID have kept many parents and their children at home,” says Gary Burris, Executive Director of the Childcare Action Council. “Workforce shortages are severe. Recruiting new staff is extremely difficult. Some staff have their own children they need to be home with, some were medically fragile, and some didn’t want to risk illness.”

“Costs have gone up with the need to purchase more cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, Burris continues. “Workdays have lengthened with the need to do more rigorous cleaning of toys, furniture, and rooms. When a teacher or child comes down with COVID, a room in a center will close, as will entire family childcare homes or small centers. One center in Thurston County was closed for two weeks and had just opened its doors for a day and a half when it had to close for another two weeks.”

David Schaffert agrees that this “is a dynamic and fluid issue of our times. I think we will be seeing the business and private sector look into how they get involved in caring for their workforce,” whether that’s increasing childcare benefits packages or by providing care or partnering with facilities. “COVID closed some childcare facilities and is causing havoc within an already systemic challenge.”This is especially true for workers who are women, underserved populations, and families of color,” says Schaffert.

A report in Politico shows how “Black and Latina women are suffering a double-barreled blow as coronavirus-induced shutdowns batter the industry since they dominate the ranks of child care providers and have long struggled to gain access to the services for their own kids… According to Labor Department data, ninety-three percent of child care workers are women, and 45 percent are Black, Asian or Latino. And half of childcare businesses are minority-owned.”

According to Coloring Outside the Lines, a child care toolkit sponsored by the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, “In Washington, over half of the annual state budget goes toward K-12 education, yet the state spent just over one percent of those funds on childcare and early learning. The industry has been in crisis for decades, with many parents unable to afford the average $14,000 annually in daycare costs. At the same time, childcare providers typically earn minimum wage, and workforce turnover is high. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced national attention on an issue too long ignored.”

They explain that across our region, “community leaders are looking into subsidies, vouchers for parents and a Co-op model of childcare operations, along with policy changes to provide more significant support for both parents and providers.” Thankfully too, says Burris, “The Build Back Better legislation at the federal level has significant support for childcare.” He also believes governments should step back and take stock.

“If our nation, state, or community were to recognize that the childcare workforce should be paid a wage commensurate with the level of importance of their work and the level of knowledge and skill needed to do the job well, we could agree upon a true cost of childcare,” says Burris. “If we were also to see early learning as important as K-12 and college and recognize the public benefit that comes from early learning both in terms of preparing children for school and life and ensuring all our other business have workers, then we would significantly underwrite the cost of operating a childcare system.”

“This well-funded, quality and accessible childcare industry could be created by either providing the private sector businesses with support to cover, perhaps 40- 50% of the cost to operate a high-quality program with an equitably compensated workforce or by providing parents with sufficient funds to support some or all of their childcare costs, creating a sliding scale fee based on income,” he says. “A combination of the two would also achieve the cost subsidy needed.”

These problems won’t be fixed overnight. But families should take heart knowing that organizations are working behind the scenes to find a safe, affordable, long-term solution. A happy, healthy future depends on it.

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