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How COVID-19 Has Created a Childcare Catch-22 for Working Families

5 minute read

Tamela Crouch never thought she’d have to worry about childcare again. But when her adult daughter died from complications of a heart infection in 2014, Crouch moved to Montana to help raise her toddler granddaughters with each of their dads. Suddenly, nearing 50, Crouch was plunged back into a world of car seats, cartoons and parenting logistics. Eventually, the multi-household family mastered a schedule that allowed all three adults to take care of the kids and keep working.

When COVID-19 hit and the girls’ day care closed, the family managed at first. The casino where Crouch worked also shuttered, so she looked after her grandkids while their dads continued to go to their essential jobs. Then Crouch was asked to return to work on May 11—a month before the only affordable childcare facility she could find was set to reopen. “If you send them to a private camp, you’re looking at $1,000 for a week,” Crouch says, “and we can’t do that.”

As states loosen stay-at-home orders and businesses call back their workers, families across the nation are finding themselves in a similar bind. With most childcare centers, schools and summer camps still closed, how can caregivers go back to work? And if they can’t go back to work now, how will they afford alternate forms of childcare so they eventually can? It’s a dilemma that’s hurting businesses too. Even before COVID-19 struck, U.S. firms were losing billions of dollars every year when employees couldn’t report to work because of breakdowns in childcare.

The federal government has introduced a few stopgap measures, and they are making a -difference—for some. On March 27, President Donald Trump signed legislation giving $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, but that cash is set to expire in July. A week earlier, Congress passed temporary sick- and family-leave benefits, providing some employees with as much as 12 weeks of paid time off at up to two-thirds their salaries. But businesses with more than 500 employees are excluded from the mandate, and firms with fewer than 50 can ask for an exemption. That’s left more than 59 million Americans, including Crouch, uncovered by those government leave provisions.

Cristina Guajardo, a 43-year-old single mom living in Austin, won’t get paid time off either. She was recently let go from her job at a company that runs study-abroad programs. Expenses are piling up, but she can’t start a new job until her 2-year-old’s subsidized day care reopens. “I’ve heard of a few jobs that have come up that would pay really well,” she says. “But there’s no way I can.”

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The stresses of the pandemic have only exposed the cracks in America’s unstructured childcare system, experts say. Families pay an average of $9,167 a year per child for day care, while the median pay for people working in those facilities is just $11.65 per hour. The average cost of full-time care for infants outpaces college tuition in 33 states, according to the left-leaning think tank New America. By comparison, Sweden subsidizes day care so parents never pay over $150 per month, and France operates government-run day cares priced on a sliding scale. “I think that the crisis calls for a complete re-envisioning of the American childcare system,” says Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. Before COVID-19, he says, the system was “so fragile that a stiff wind could have blown it over. Now we’ve got this hurricane that has completely shattered it.”

While the U.S. has taken some steps to help parents in this unprecedented moment, other countries have taken more aggressive approaches. Italy offered families €600 ($650) to offset babysitting costs. Australia is paying to keep 13,000 childcare centers open and allowing working parents to use them for free. Norway and Denmark permitted elementary schools and day cares to reopen in April.

Not all of those solutions would work in the U.S., which is still very much in the grip of the world’s largest COVID-19 outbreak. Without direct coordination from the federal government, states are issuing protocols one by one, meaning some areas may be without full access to childcare for weeks or months to come. Some states have allowed day cares to remain open with fewer children, while others have permitted facilities to open their doors for the children of essential personnel. Meanwhile, an array of companies are -accommodating their employees by allowing them to work from home or shift their schedules to adjust to their families’ new needs.

But just a few months into the pandemic, there’s already evidence that COVID-19 is making things worse for working parents—and moms in particular. Layoffs have so far been concentrated in female-dominated fields, but without childcare, single mothers like Guajardo may struggle to seize new opportunities. Married women may suffer too. They outearn their male spouses just 29% of the time, per the Census Bureau. If families have to choose which parent cuts back on work to stay home with kids while schools are closed, the recession may make some women the more obvious choice.

In Montana, that’s the decision that Crouch eventually reached. With her employer reopening but her granddaughters needing care, she felt she had no option but to resign and stay home. It’s unlikely she’s alone.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com