When schools and childcare providers operate on part-time schedules or at lower capacity—or shut down altogether—will working parents be forced to choose between caring for their children and losing their jobs?
That's the question facing America's working parents right now: your child, or your job.
Florida State University announced that it would "no longer allow" its employees to care for children during working hours. An attorney was reportedly fired by her employer after her children were overheard in the background on business calls. Meanwhile, as the pressures of parenting through a pandemic rise, an increasing number of mothers are leaving the workforce to care for children, which has already been predicted to have longterm economic impacts including widening the wage gap.
This summer and fall. school districts and childcare providers nationwide are struggling with a monumental—and expensive—problem: How to implement safe reopening guidelines as suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics—without, it should be noted, urgently-needed additional funding for staff, equipment or space. Implementing safe health practices at schools and daycares is a must in order for them to reopen. It also will cost a lot more money.
People want to go back to work. Kids need to go back to school and to childcare. We all want and need our country's economic outlook to improve. But somehow, incredibly, there's been no planning at either the federal or local level for how those needs can be made to work together.
It's not as if working parents make up a negligible percentage of the workforce in America. The Department of Labor reports that 93% of fathers and 71% of mothers in America participate in the workforce—they're either employed or trying to be. Even among mothers of children under the age of three, the workforce participation rate is over 50%, and for mothers of older children, the rate is as high as 76%.
The U.S. labor force is estimated at around 164 million people—of which working parents make up slightly less than half. Of the nation's 82.6 million families, 81.1% had at least one employed family member in 2019. Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40% of households with children under 18.
Working parents in this country are accustomed to challenging conditions. Unaffordable childcare, childcare deserts and a lack of paid parental leave for most parents are all considered status quo, old news, the price of admission to American parenthood. But at the very least, parents of school-age children could rely on a public school system that cared for and educated their kids for about 70% of the working day. Now even that minimal safety net is gone (and as many a teacher will tell you, equating school and childcare is one of those things that makes teachers see red).
But with working parents making a significant percentage of the very economy we are all so eager to see up and humming again, there's got to be at least some consideration of what will happen to parents when businesses expect us to show up and there's still no care or education in place for our kids. Airlines got billions of dollars in federal bailout money—imagine what that level of relief could do to help keep the struggling child care industry afloat.
The numbers are clear: There is no reopening the economy until there's a solution for working parents. Period.
[A version of this post was originally published in April 2020, and updated in May 2020. It has been updated again. And there is still no plan for working parents who need full-time childcare.]