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What Happens When Essential Workers Need Child Care?
All Brittany Mann thinks about when she’s at work is her infant daughter, Aahliyah. While Mann works 12-hour shifts as a security guard at a women’s homeless shelter in lower Manhattan, Aahliyah is at a home-based day care back in the Bronx, where they live. Sometimes, Mann needs to stay longer to cover when other guards are late or call in sick. More than half of her weekly salary goes to day care.
As a single mother, Mann wishes she could instead be with her daughter every day. “I’m worried about COVID, but I have to work,” she says.
Nine months into the pandemic, the child care crisis continues to leave parents stressed and exhausted. Yet essential workers—hospital staff, home health aides, bank tellers, grocery store workers, security personnel, and more—have to keep showing up. Overwhelmingly, they are mothers of color from the very communities the pandemic has hit the hardest. Every choice then demands sacrificing health or financial survival.
Care work activist Jaime-Jin Lewis wasted no time launching a series of rapid response efforts. Lewis is the founder of Wiggle Room, an initiative that builds tech-powered child care solutions for low-wage hourly workers. In March, when New York City issued a shelter-in-place order, Lewis launched Workers Need Childcare within days to help essential workers navigate the maze of affordable, safe child care options.
“Parents are really isolated right now,” Lewis says. “We aim to make information understandable and clear that’s otherwise almost impossible to glean. We want them to know they have options and they’re not alone.”
At the start of the pandemic, government information was confusing and contradictory. While the Department of Education hastily opened Regional Enrichment Centers—free schools for the children of essential workers throughout the city—Lewis says information was hard to find and messaging around eligibility unclear. Also, the CARES Child Care Scholarship promised to pay for any licensed day care parents used, but funding was slow to roll out.
The role of Workers Need Childcare then began to fill in the gaps. Building on the Office of Children and Family Services’ list of all child care options in New York City, Lewis texted more than 7,000 smaller providers and programs to find out their real-time availability, rates, safety precautions, and more. Around 550 responded, enough to build an internal database alongside government options.
Then, through a hotline, volunteers fielded requests, helped parents make a plan, and advocated on their behalf when necessary. The average time to fulfill a request was two weeks, and many forms were only in English at first, making language access challenging. Still, they managed to find child care 250 parents between the start of the pandemic and September. Most of the parents calling were mothers.
Akilah Martin connected with WNC in June. A single mother of three girls ages 7, 12, and 16, Martin works every weekday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at a hospital opioid clinic in the Bronx. She’s been on autopilot since March. “I don’t have a choice. I’m not one of those parents who has options,” she says. “The only option I have is to keep moving forward.”
When schools closed, Martin tried a couple of centers that were either too far from her home in Harlem or didn’t support her children during their remote learning. Lewis tried to help Martin find a provider, but many were unwilling to take in her kids because she works at a hospital. Either that, or the centers weren’t focused on schoolwork. Martin eventually ended up returning to a home-based provider who’d cared for her oldest daughter in the past. Like Mann, half of her salary went to child care. She had to put her bills on hold. But it was the best choice for Martin because she felt safe leaving her children with someone she trusted.
Home-based day cares are the most common form of care for low-income parents throughout New York City, with more than 93% of children ages 0-5 enrolled in these programs. Early on, Lewis realized that many essential workers were already relying on home-based providers because of their small enrollment, flexible hours, affordability, and roots in the neighborhood.
Yet home-based providers have long felt overlooked and undervalued, says Gladys Jones, home-based provider and founder of ECE on the Move, a child care advocacy movement. In New York, the annual average salary for a child care worker is $29,880. The state-run subsidy program for low-income parents hardly pays providers livable wages, says Jones—maintaining a home-based day care can be costly between rent, insurance, supplies, staff wages, and other expenses. Now, more than ever, Jones believes, providers need to be adequately compensated for serving as first responders during the pandemic.
“These women have stood up and taken care of these children since March and are still doing it, without hazard pay,” Jones says. “They pride themselves in the work they do. But no one knows who they are.”
Millie Carbajal has owned M&M 24-Hour Daycare in the South Bronx for the past decade. She says that while it’s been nerve-wracking and costly to keep up with ever-changing safety protocols—she’s hired a cleaning company, and all employees have personal protective equipment—the thought of closing has never crossed her mind.
“We have even more of a responsibility to these parents during the pandemic,” she says. “I told my staff, ‘If they’re going out there, then we need to do our part and support them by watching their children.’ “
Some other home-based providers have either opted out because of safety concerns or been forced to close because the CARES Act funding simply hasn’t been enough. Many have already begun selling their play kitchen sets, slides, art tables, and more on social media platforms. A recent survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children predicts that 82% of child care providers nationally will have to close their doors by July 2021 if they do not receive public investment.
Care labor has long gone unrecognized. Shana Bartley from the National Women’s Law Center says that when we look at the history of child care in the U.S., it was largely the domain of enslaved Black women and other women of color brought to this country. Once they could engage in the labor market, she says, they were limited in what was available to them—mostly domestic labor jobs with low wages. Today, more than 40% of the child care workers are Black, Asian, and Latino.
“We have a system that has, quite frankly, exploited the paid and unpaid labor of women of color,” Bartley says.
Through this racial and gender justice lens, Lewis launched The Care Together Funding Network in July to provide financial relief for providers and parents when publicly funded options started to time out. Parents could request to have up to five weeks of child care covered—no sob stories needed, no strings attached. As a mutual aid model, community donors pooled their money. They then received an automated text instructing them which essential workers to send direct cash transfers to based on need—using what Lewis calls a “wealth redistribution algorithm”—via apps such as Zelle and Venmo. A note of encouragement often accompanied the exchange.
The biggest challenge was the apps flagging transfers between strangers, costing Lewis hours on the phone each week. Still, in four months, the network redistributed over $152,000 for home-based child care to 40 parents (all but three of whom were mothers) including Mann and Martin. While many said the extra money was a huge help, the model ultimately proved difficult to scale up and was an unsustainable use of Wiggle Room’s resources.
Now, Lewis is building a platform to bring together the folks she’s been connecting all year. Set to publicly launch January 2021, the platform will be a place where home-based child care providers can advertise real-time availability and parents can search for child care using criteria tailored to the needs of hourly workers. The mission remains the same: supporting overlooked parents in finding the best care option for their children during the pandemic, and beyond.
“Parents deserve to have their needs met and they deserve to ask for help,” Lewis says. “Everyone needs a little wiggle room.”
Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a solutions-focused journalist, essayist, and fiction writer based in Portland, Oregon.