How Irregular Hours Hurt Low-Wage Parents

Jessica Sager is the founder and executive director of All Our Kin and a lecturer at Yale College. She is a Pahara Aspen Fellow and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

'In too many cases, night care can become a nightmare'

I like to wake up early. This is new for me: I used to be a night owl, but now that I’m a mother, I find that I can get my best writing done first thing, while my daughter is still asleep.

As a working parent, I have my late nights, too, and those are the times when I’m most likely to send a sloppy email, misspelling a name or leaving out a crucial bit of punctuation. I’ve learned to be extra careful after 10 p.m. when I press send.

The grammar and plagiarism checking site, Grammarly, released a report recently comparing the writing capabilities of two kinds of people: “Early Birds,” who rise with the dawn, and “Night Owls,” who stay up late.

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According to the study, Early Birds made fewer mistakes. Their grammar, spelling and punctuation were far more consistent than their late-night peers. But what is missing from the data is whether Early Birds and Night Owls adopted their lifestyles by choice or by necessity.

For many American workers and particularly working parents, the decision to be an Early Bird or Night Owl is not theirs to make. And the consequences are direr than an occasional misspelling.

Low-wage workers are likely to work irregular hours, often patching together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. These workers are often sleep-deprived; the consequences of their sleep deprivation can lead not only to increased mistakes on the job but to lasting health consequences, including increased risk of heart disease.

The challenges of working nontraditional hours with unpredictable scheduling are especially difficult for parents of young children. These parents are already dangerously exhausted, especially during their children’s infancy. Now, they are juggling their complicated work schedules with child care needs.

In too many cases, night care can become a nightmare.

A new ROC United report, “Nightcare: The Growing Challenge for Parents on the Late Shift,” chronicles restaurant workers’ experiences in seeking night care in New York City.

The report identifies many barriers to care. These include a shortage of licensed evening care, which forces many parents to rely on informal and/or underground child care arrangements. Cost is also prohibitive for many low-income workers and unpredictable scheduling leaves parents scrambling to make last-minute child care arrangements. As a result, parents are exhausted, stressed and struggling to stay in the workforce.

These child care challenges don’t just impact parents; they have implications for children as well. Any parent can tell you that it’s hard to be energetic, attentive and engaged when you’re exhausted.

Sleep deprivation affects children, too; children in poverty get less sleep, and their sleep is lower-quality than their more affluent peers. This lack of sleep can impair their academic performance, lead to emotional and behavioral problems, and even increase the risk of childhood obesity.

While the ROC United report focused on restaurant workers, they are by no means the only ones affected. Airport workers, hotel and hospitality workers, and workers across the service industry stay up late so that the rest of us can enjoy access to round-the-clock services.

The challenges of unpredictable scheduling and access to child care affect parents across a wide range of industries, and a wide range of income levels.

What can we do about this shift crisis affecting millions of children and families?

A range of policy approaches can help make things easier for parents and children.

First, we can expand access to child-care subsidy programs, such as the Child Care Development Block Grant, that help low-income working parents pay for care. Only one in six children eligible for the funding actually receives it.

We can encourage employers to set work schedules in advance, through government mandates or media campaigns. We can advocate for humane scheduling systems, doing away with practices such as “clopening,” when an employee works until closing time, grabs a few hours of sleep and shows up again to open the business in the morning.

Each of these initiatives is important, but they’re not sufficient.

Parents need options for neighborhood child care that’s open in the evenings, overnight and early in the morning, places where they know their children will be safe and well-cared for.

Center-based care can be prohibitively expensive. According to’s newly released Care Index, center-based care for a child under the age of 4 is $9,589 a year, higher than the average cost of child tuition. And center-based care, especially night care, is in short supply.

One way to expand access is to invest in licensed, home-based child care programs, also called family child cares. These programs, as their name suggests, offer the warmth and nurturing of a family. At the same time, they meet state or local quality and safety standards.

These programs are neighborhood-based, offer flexible hours and are usually more affordable than center-based care. Best of all, family child cares offer parents who want to stay home with their children an opportunity to do so, while making it possible for other parents to go to work.

A private-public partnership between employers and government could go far to expand the supply of family child care. With an initial investment of funds and training to help would-be providers get started, incentives such as extra pay for offering night care, and ongoing professional development and oversight to ensure quality, family child care can become a truly viable night care option in many more communities.

That way no matter what shift a worker has, he or she can rest more easily.

Sager is the founder and executive director of All Our Kin, a lecturer at Yale College, a Pahara Aspen Fellow and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project

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