Since March 2020, when the pandemic began shutting down workplaces, schools, and social gatherings, child care providers and their staff have been going 110%. They’ve risked their health and faced extra costs, with resources dwindling every day. For them, anxiety and worry continue to grow as we head into year three of this seemingly never-ending crisis.
When COVID-19 hit, Governor Inslee declared child care workers essential. But with the large number of businesses closing their doors and others shifting to work-from-home, many parents across the state no longer needed child care, and as a result, centers were forced to close or reduce capacity. Crosscut reported that about 1,000 child care programs across the state closed temporarily between March and late August 2020 for pandemic-related reasons. Those closures affected about one-quarter of the state’s child care slots.
Child care was in crisis even before the pandemic, with costs out of reach for parents, teachers making poverty wages, centers struggling to stay open, and supply far short of demand. Without large government subsidies, there’s simply not enough money in the system to provide the quality and quantity of child care our kids, parents, and employers need.
Early in the COVID crisis in the spring of 2020, Congress took steps to help workers, families, and small businesses weather the economic downturn, including providing employer reimbursements for COVID-related paid sick leave or family leave and the creation of the Paycheck Protection Program. For child care providers already operating close to the margin, federal assistance made a big difference. It allowed workers to continue providing much-needed services for kids and parents, especially for other essential workers such as health care providers and first responders.
The one-time funds dispersed at the start of the pandemic helped stabilize the industry but did not go far enough, and today, both those federal programs are long gone. In 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provided additional federal funds to state and local governments that have helped keep public services and the economy going. Washington’s state legislature is meeting now and will decide how and where to allocate the state’s remaining ARPA funds.
Meanwhile, surges of COVID-19 variants such as Delta and Omicron are pushing the child care industry deeper and deeper into crisis. Teachers continue to be exposed to variants as children test positive for the virus. Additionally, the children of caregivers are also being exposed to COVID-19 at school, forcing families into quarantine and preventing teachers from going to work. This cycle leads teachers to use up all their paid sick leave to recover or quarantine and causes staff shortages at centers, which can then force temporary or permanent closures. One provider stated, “we are one teacher away from permanently closing.”
Despite undertaking essential jobs, child care workers are among the lowest-paid workers in our state. The average wage for child care workers in 2021 was just $16.59, less than the average pay for animal caretakers, bellhops, or vehicle cleaners. Chronic low pay in child care is rooted in a long history of undervaluing women’s labor, especially BIPOC women, who make up the overwhelming majority of the childcare workforce. Without better pay, child care won’t attract and retain adequate staff, and providers can’t stay in business.
Child care is a common good that holds up the economy while safeguarding the well-being of our kids. But teachers’ are not compensated accordingly, one reason being that the average family cannot afford the actual cost of quality care. The government needs to step up and adequately invest in the child care workforce. Fair Start of Kids Act that passed the state legislature in 2021 expanded child care slots for lower-income families, however, it did not address the compensation issue that most states struggle to manage.
It is clear that without child care, the economy will continue to lag, and parents without access to care for their children will not get back to work. Women will be the most impacted. Most of us believed the vaccine would remedy many of these problems, but vaccines for children under age 5 haven’t become available, and this virus seems here to stay.
The Washington state legislature is halfway through a 60-days session and can help mitigate the problem. Washington has federal funds and unallocated state money available that the legislature can include in this year’s supplemental budget. These funds can and should go to increasing the availability and affordability of child care, subsidizing extra paid sick days, and providing other compensation enhancements for the child care workforce. We’ll have more work to do, but investments in child care can’t wait.
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