As a PhD candidate researching child care in the US, I have found that child care workers have continued to make sure parents can get to work during COVID, but do not receive appreciation, living wages, healthcare benefits, or paid leave in return. Unfortunately, for decades, child care workers have been living in these conditions, and COVID makes it much more urgent to take action.

I have been researching and learning about child care for six years, beginning with hearing from community members from a high-needs area of Greenville, SC, about why affordable, quality, and accessible child care allows people to get to work and provides early learning for children. With this statement from the community, I helped lead an effort to return 2- and 3-year-old Head Start classrooms to the area. I learned more about how child care works from implementing that project, and then I had my own son. I became friends with my son’s child care teachers, who told me about what was going on at the center in which they worked, and the conditions for child care workers everywhere—and that led me to action research to improve child care as a whole. I have done more research on the topic through my employment at a local think tank, followed by writing a policy analysis and now my dissertation aims to begin improving child care as a whole, starting with the workers.

The women and men who care for our children while we work should have access to living wages, healthcare, and the respect they deserve. Here’s the case for pushing childcare workers to the front of the vaccine line.

Child Care Workers Should be Prioritized to Receive the COVID Vaccination

There is currently a public push for 4K-12 teachers to be prioritized for receiving COVID vaccinations, with good reason. Teachers are indoors for many hours with classrooms full of children each day; therefore, according to CDC guidelines, they are at high risk for contracting COVID. Child care workers fit the same criteria, and deserve prioritization for the COVID vaccination—after all, they are also teachers. Child care workers should receive access to the COVID vaccination now.

What it’s Been Like for Child Care Workers During the Pandemic

During the COVID pandemic, child care workers have watched as other businesses shut down, but in many states, child care never has. As schools (4K-12), doctor’s offices, retail, restaurants, and more closed, child care workers have continued to go to work (and still do as we continue through the pandemic) to ensure that the people in jobs classified as “essential” could remain employed. In addition, workers who were classified as essential have been praised by many who could and can stay home, and thanked for their dedication. Efforts to push for hazard pay or bonuses for essential workers have gained momentum, but child care workers have not been a part of the discussion.

One child care administrator and teacher from my research felt this was an additional jab: “Nobody was proclaiming, ‘Oh, you’re putting yourself at risk every day’…the grocery store employees were getting bonuses and all sorts of stuff and thanks and appreciation. But we remained there throughout the whole thing and we were taking in children every day… to the people who do have families at home, they were risking bringing anything home with them every day.” This teacher in particular was not concerned about infecting anyone at home with COVID, but she had her own health to be concerned about, and no health insurance provided by her employer to help her cover her expenses if she were to get sick.

In another center, a child care director shared with me the health concerns for herself and her teachers: “In the spring [2020] it was, ‘Oh, the teachers, oh the teachers, oh the teachers.’ And now everybody just wants people to get back to work and get back to normal…And [in] childcare, we change diapers…clean up throw up, they clean up diarrhea. They deal with all kinds of stuff. So it is perfectly within our rights to be concerned about our own health…about safety and about what kind of safeguards are being put in place for the teachers.”

Child care workers are not being considered as teachers or essential workers, and their mental and physical health needs have been left out of consideration.

Access to Health Care

According to recently-released preliminary data on child care workers in the United States, 11.2% of child care workers did not have health care coverage of any type. Several child care workers in another of my studies reported that those who have health insurance, but are not able to secure it through their partner or spouse (24.5%), are paying a lot of money out of pocket to either enroll in a healthcare exchange, directly with a health insurance company (combined 6.8%), or high-deductible plans through their employers (13.8%). Of the small number of child care workers who are offered paid sick leave, many are afraid to take it. This means that at least 31.8% of our child care workers across the country do not have adequate access to healthcare during a pandemic.

Child Care Workers Support Our Economy

Child care builds children’s foundations through education and life skills, requires a high level of trust, and supports our economy. Parents must rely on the knowledge that their children are being cared for in a quality environment so that they can maintain employment with peace of mind that their children are safe, loved, and being prepared to go to K-12. However, one nanny shared with me that they didn’t feel parents valued them as highly as they should: “I think a lot of them see this as not a real job…Just the stepping-stone in your life path; they get up every day to go to work—we get up every day to come care for your children so you can go to work.”

Child care is an essential component of infrastructure, keeps our economy going by enabling parents to go to work, and provides workforce readiness for children, families, and employers.

What You Can Do

Child care workers need your help to receive priority access to the vaccination. Please call or write to your state and federal elected officials to push for action on this important matter. Tell your elected officials that child care workers’ access to a vaccination, particularly due to the fact that they do not have access to adequate healthcare in many cases, is a priority for their health, as well as the health and well-being of our children, families, and workforce. They need the vaccination now.

Adapted from the Dissertation: Examining the Everyday Life of Child Care Workers: How Low Wages and the Lack of Benefits Affect Daily Life, Decisions about Employment, and What They Need You to Know (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).

Clemson University, Institute for Family and Neighborhood Life