The child care industry and the workers in it—overwhelmingly women, many of them women of color—have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Really hard. But now there are two big reasons for hope, thanks to child care funding in the COVID-19 relief bill passed by the House and to a rush of states opening up vaccinations to child care workers.
After losing 400,000 jobs early in the pandemic, the industry hasn’t fully rebounded. In December 2020, there were still nearly 175,000 fewer child care jobs than there were in December 2019. In an industry that operates on extremely tight profit margins, enrollments remain down due to both reduced class sizes for social distancing purposes and parents keeping their kids home rather than risking group settings, while expenses for personal protective equipment and cleaning are up.
According to a December study from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 56% of child care centers say they are “losing money every day that they remain open.” The first glimmer of hope on that front came at the end of December, when the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 allocated $10 billion to child care, and that money is going out. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Gov. Tom Wolf announced plans this week for $303 million in federal money, including $140.7 million to support providers who have lost enrollment and $87 million in increased payments for providers who participate in subsidized care.
But the COVID-19 relief package the House passed includes much more help: $39 billion. And, HuffPost’s Emily Peck reports, “the money is retroactive, so centers that are already in debt or behind on their rent or mortgage payments can catch up.”
While Senate Republicans have objected to many of the provisions in the relief bill, and intend to do everything they can to delay its passage, they haven’t targeted the child care money, so there is hope that help is on the way.
There’s a more individual form of hope, too, for child care workers. Following President Biden’s call for teachers and child care workers to be vaccinated (or have gotten at least one shot) by the end of March, pharmacies participating in a federal vaccination program opened up eligibility to those groups across the country, regardless of whether they were yet eligible under state guidelines. But that wasn’t all.
A series of states quickly moved to open up their own vaccination programs to teachers and child care workers, including Massachusetts (where Republican Gov. Charlie Baker made clear he wasn’t happy about it), Washington state, and Texas. Prior to Biden’s push, teachers and child care workers had already heard that they would soon become eligible in Ohio, Vermont, and New Jersey as the states continue to expand their vaccinations.
None of this is the end of problems for the industry or for its low-paid workers. Even before the pandemic, turnover was extremely high in daycare centers, and that’s only gotten worse during the pandemic. Median pay for child care workers is $11.65 an hour, according to one recent study. And despite the low pay, reliable, high-quality child care is not affordable for many families, keeping some women out of the workforce (at cost to their lifetime earnings) or leaving families with a series of bad choices.
The pandemic has shown that child care is absolutely an economic issue, with increased work absences due to child care problems over the past year and many parents of young children—again, especially mothers—dropping out of the paid workforce entirely over it. There’s an immediate crisis here, but there’s also a long-term problem. It would be great if we could use the crisis to draw attention to the problem and look at longer-term fixes. But in the short term, keeping child care centers open and protecting their workers from COVID-19 are big steps.