B.* is a domestic worker living in Philadelphia with her husband and two children, ages 11 and 8. She cleans houses, often Airbnbs that are between guests, but also some primary residences. She’s been working, she tells Refinery29 through a linguistic interpreter, through most of the coronavirus pandemic, as has her husband, who is also undocumented. Her children’s schools, however, have been closed since early March, which has meant she’s had to rely on an unsteady patchwork of stands-ins. “There are some apartments that I clean [Airbnbs] that I bring them to — especially this and last month — because it's been impossible to find someone who can take care of them,” she explains. “I have some neighbors next door who are elderly, I give them the keys, and ask them to look after my kids while I clean. And my sister-in-law will take care of them a lot.”
Open schools meant B.’s children had somewhere to be for most of the day, she says, but now she has no childcare, other than what she can cobble together herself. “It’s because I don’t qualify for any help, because I am undocumented,” she explains. “It’s been really hard.” It’s not that things were necessarily easy before the pandemic (B. says “the situation has been pretty much the same” with regards to having childcare for the hours not covered by school days), but they are certainly more difficult now. Her hours have been longer during the pandemic, because people’s homes are messier when they’re spending more time in them, which means she’s often late getting home to fix her kids dinner, or collect them from her sister-in-law. And, B. adds, she doesn’t get paid more to clean up a dirtier apartment.
Dialogues about the dire impossibility of working without steady childcare have recently exploded on Twitter, with high-profile users like Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman, writer/editor Emily Gould, and The Appeal president Josie Duffy Rice expounding on their own struggles of working from home during the pandemic while caring for their kids. What’s perhaps most infuriating, according to these working parents, is that there don’t seem to be any plans for how to help them as businesses — but not schools — reopen. In late June, Perelman, who also recently wrote a story on the subject for the New York Times, tweeted: “What I am simmering with white hot rage over is the idea that both plans are moving ahead — an open economy but mostly closed schools, camps — as if it would be totally okay if a generation of parents lost their careers, insurance, and livelihoods in the process. It's outrageous.” The tweet currently has over 4k likes, and a litany of responses from equally distressed parents concerned for their bank accounts, career trajectories, sanity, and relationships with their spouses and kids.
The coronavirus shutdown has wrought a host of new overwhelming economic and social issues, from soaring unemployment rates to a historic rise in mental health problems, but it has also amplified existing problems, like police brutality, systemic racism, inadequate healthcare options, and a lack of accessible, affordable childcare. Throughout the last few months, few, if any places in America have been in a position where it’s either safe — or even practical — to operate schools and daycares as usual (though, many essential workers have used state-run emergency daycares and schools, but this isn’t possible for the population at-large). Without schools and daycare, some parents have leaned on grandparents or other relatives for help, but given that the COVID-19 risks are greater for older adults, and that many people don’t live near extended family, that’s an imperfect and rarely possible solution.
The childcare conundrum feels like an intractable one right now, but, like so many of these other COVID-adjacent problems, it’s not an entirely new one — it’s just new to the upper-middle class. For most of America — especially families like B.’s, where both parents are undocumented and thus have no access to government-sponsored programs — the precarious struggle of balancing work and family has been a fact of life, one that has been holding back countless people from reaching their full career potential — particularly women. According to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, in 2016 alone, almost 2 million parents of children five and under had to quit a job, not take a job, or change their job because of problems with access to childcare. So while it’s great that this long-standing crisis is finally getting some attention, to paint it as being merely a feature of the “coronavirus economy,” as some have, is blatantly ignorant.
“The childcare crisis is not new. The need for paid family and medical leave is not new. The need for protections for caregivers and for parents and for pregnant workers is not new. It shouldn't take a global pandemic to raise awareness about these issues,” says Sarah Brafman, Senior Policy Counsel at A Better Balance, which advocates for policies to help working families. “But we have a moment where we do have a global crisis, and this is an opportunity to address the failings of our past.”
While many families of privilege are experiencing what it’s like to be without steady childcare for the first time — and are understandably buckling under that pressure — for those who were already struggling with finding affordable and appropriate care for their kids, the impact has been compounded. “We definitely need more help. You know, our money is good when it comes to paying taxes, but when it comes to our time of need, then we’re no good at all,” says B. “Everyone has to put in their little grain of sand and help us to bring this issue to light and offer to help speak up for us. Only together will we get the attention that we need.”
Indeed, childcare is an issue that, while crucial for families, should be important to anyone who wants to see the American economy made whole again. “If they really want to help people get back to work, they have to figure out how to safely create spaces where children can stay,” says Emily James, an English teacher at a Brooklyn, New York high school. James lives in the Bronx with her husband and daughters, ages 5 and 7. Prior to the pandemic, James says, her husband worked nights, starting at 4 a.m. “We basically just switched off because we had opposite schedules — we would tag off, dump them off to each other. Or we would have a babysitter for an hour or so in between, if we could.” These days, they’re both home, because he’s on leave due to a health condition, but that hasn’t made balancing work with caring for the kids any easier. “From 8:00 in the morning until 1:00 p.m., my kids would be next to me while I was teaching my students.”
“For me personally, as a writer and a teacher, I've had to just give up doing certain extra stuff,” James adds. “I've had to stop writing because it wasn't worth the fight of, like, trying to find that space in my house that doesn't exist.”
One solution to the current problem would be to pass the Child Care Is Essential Act, which has been introduced in Congress and would provide $50 billion worth of grants to childcare providers, allowing them to safely reopen during a time when many are struggling to stay afloat financially after months of closure. There’s a fear that, if not bailed out in the manner of, say, the financial sector or many major corporations, daycare centers and other childcare providers, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, will shutter just as reopening ramps up, leaving parents who work outside the home with even fewer childcare options than ever. And then, it’s still unclear what will happen with schools this fall — in New York City, the largest public school district in America, the plan is for in-person classrooms to operate just one to three days a week, leaving major gaps in on-site education for students, making things especially for parents who aren’t able to work from home. This also puts teachers with children in particularly difficult positions, as it’s unlikely they’ll be able to line up their in-school days with their children’s in-school days. “It feels impossible,” says James. “It’s a puzzle that just doesn’t fit.”
While a new law was passed in March that requires public employers and many private companies to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave, businesses with less than 50 employees are exempt, meaning their employees can’t benefit from what still only amounts to 10 days of extra relief. And paid sick leave is, of course, only one part of a much bigger picture. According to a survey of 1,000 working moms produced by HeyMama and InHerSight, flexibility and empathy are the two biggest things they say they need from their companies right now. (Although, among survey-takers who selected “other” as their answer choice, the most common response was that they want help from their employers in paying for childcare.) Tellingly, flexibility — as it pertains to deadlines, working hours, time off, and location — is something that, according to a 2018 survey by the Harvard Business Review, 96 percent of employees, whether parents or not, say they want from the company they work for (just 47 percent say it’s something they actually have). Empathy is a less tangible thing for a company to strive for, but it’s certainly more likely to be achieved when there are people at the top who understand, in this case, what it’s like to change a diaper and take a phone call at the same time, which is part of the reason it’s so important not only to have diversity in the top rungs of companies, but also to make it possible for working parents to move up the career ladder.
But any time we’re relying on private organizations to decide to do the right thing, it’s going to leave a large swath of people — those who don’t work for the kinds of companies where these conversations are happening, or who are freelance or gig workers, or who are unemployed, or who are undocumented — in the lurch. The Department of Labor reports that over 30 million Americans have lost work since the beginning of the pandemic (though some estimate the toll could be more like 40 million), and many parents are worried the work/parenting balancing act they’re having to pull off right now could negatively impact their chances of regaining full-time employment, especially in such a crowded job market.
Freelancers, in particular, are subject to a lot of professional uncertainty, must deal with a range of expectations from clients, and may have a harder time obtaining new contracts right now. “Without childcare, I have to be home and that affects how much I can actually be outside of the house working. So I have to get firm on my boundaries and be prepared to not have the same opportunities as people who may have more access to childcare options than I do,” says Amer Woods, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, has an 11-year-old son, and is currently looking for a full-time role as a neurophysiologist while also freelancing as a writer and content producer. “This could also affect the number of offers for other things, such as projects, promotions, availability to travel, etc. I may get passed over now because me caring for my child can be perceived as a negative against me and my work ethic.”
Already, there have been accounts of employees being pushed to go back to work without proper childcare provisions in place. In early July, Florida State University made headlines for sending its employees an email noting, “Effective, August 7, 2020, the University will return to normal policy and will no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.” (It has since backed down from the position, with a spokesperson apologizing for causing “confusion and anxiety” among employees.) Perhaps even more disturbing is the account of Drisana Rios, a San Diego woman who recently filed a lawsuit against an insurance brokerage firm that allegedly fired her because her young children kept interrupting her Zoom meetings. While there are protections under the Civil Rights Act against discrimination on the basis of sex — Rios’ case will likely hinge on proving that’s what this was — and in a handful of states, laws that prohibit discrimination against parents and caretakers, at-will employees can largely be dismissed at the employer’s discretion.
“There are many working mothers who are rightfully concerned that they will be furloughed or let go prior to other employees without children,” says Kelly Williams, an employment attorney at Slate Law Group in San Diego. “Lately, we have also seen the increased firing of pregnant women, despite having performed well at their company, due to the fact that they will be going on maternity leave.”
While the fear that all of this will add up to parents — and particularly women — dropping out of the workforce is legitimate, it’s likely that most of the people struggling to simultaneously work and care for kids right now will not voluntarily leave their jobs, because, well, who the hell can afford to? What’s more probable is that those in salaried roles will stay, continue to struggle, and then get passed over for promotions and lose out on crucial opportunities that could determine their earning potential for years to come. Gig and freelance workers will continue to struggle with chronic underemployment, and the disturbing trend of fewer women being hired than men will continue. But even among some middle-class professionals, there is a growing sense that maybe the sacrifices necessary to be a two-income household are just no longer worth it. “It’s really changed our priorities as far as, are we ever really going to be able to have two incomes again?” questions Sade Dozan, a Senior Development Manager at the advocacy group Caring Across Generations, whose husband is immunocompromised and no longer working. “COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. It’s not like it’s going to be, okay, suddenly it’s September, and it’s gone. And that’s really shifted our priorities around caregiving and financial income. I think once people make that switch it’s going to be very hard to go back.”
Getting funds to keep daycare centers afloat, demanding flexibility and understanding from companies, and forging a path forward for schools seem to be the inevitably imperfect priorities for ensuring families — and the economy — survive this crisis in the short-term. But when it comes to long-term policy changes, we need to ensure we’re including families at every socio-economic level in the conversation, and thinking beyond the scope of what single organizations can achieve by shifting their corporate culture. Long before the pandemic, there’d been a feeling that you could have a kid or you could have a career — not both and not at the same time, unless you’re wealthy (thanks, late-stage capitalism). But now we’ve reached a new level of crisis, and with that, a chance to reassess how we move forward. If we don’t use this moment to put pressure on both government and business leaders to ensure universal care for all, we run the risk of permanently turning parenthood into yet another thing that is only manageable for the very privileged.
“What we have to remember is that these are issues of racial, gender, and economic justice,” says Brafman. “The childcare workforce being comprised largely of women of color and having it be a largely underpaid industry is a racial justice issue. The fact that women are being forced out of the workforce in higher numbers and not having the ability to return, or having to return in lower-paying positions is a gender justice issue. And the composite of that is affecting the family as a whole. And that is an economic justice issue.”
Caring Across Generations, A Better Balance, and other groups are advocating for new policies that would amount to universal care for all, including the elderly and people with disabilities. It was a cornerstone of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, with the senator calling for a network of facilities for children too young to attend schools, subsidized and regulated by the government, and something Bernie Sanders also regularly spoke on. And now that, due to coronavirus, many people who would never otherwise have to experience what it’s like to be without childcare have done so, there may — hopefully — be more support than ever for these kinds of policies. “I feel like even when people are saying things like, ‘I can't wait for life to go back to normal,’ I don’t feel like people are saying let’s go back to the ways and the policies of January 2020,” says Josephine Kalipeni, Caring Across Generations’ Director of Policy and Partnerships. “I think people are hungry for a sense of safety in a way that actually means that it has to be a new, big and bold idea.” Brafman agrees. “We have the solutions,” she says. “We just have to put them in place.”
*Name abbreviated to preserve anonymity.