COVID could be the wakeup call businesses need to fix a broken child care system

Businesses have finally realized that the child care crisis damages the economy, and that it’s in their best, most selfish interests to help solve it.

Kendra Hurley
Opinion contributor

Back in 2009, when New York City imposed a tax on big businesses to help pay for the subway system, most got on board. They understood that because their employees depended on the subway to get to work, their businesses depended on it too. But when New York City lawmakers proposed a far more modest tax to help subsidize child care, businesses weren’t having it. The problem? They didn’t get how central child care was to keeping their operations humming.

Fast forward one global pandemic later and the secret is out: With schools moved online and day cares closing after months of lost tuition coupled with the increased costs of providing child care in the time of COVID-19, business leaders are grasping that child care matters to their bottom lines. But this revelation is fresh, tenuous, and subject to amnesia.

As working parents piece together temporary child care solutions, they are eager to signal to supervisors that everything with the kids is back to business-as-usual. We parents need to resist that urge, because the way child care has worked in this country is not something we ever want to return to.

New parents and impossible choices

Even before the pandemic, our country’s market approach to child care was broken, and it hurt everyone it touched. Infant care can cost families more than college tuition even while more than half of our child care workers must supplement their wages with public assistance. 

New parents routinely grapple with the impossible choices between breaking their budgets, putting up with child care of questionable quality, or leaving the workforce. In a recent pre-pandemic one-year period, nearly two million parents with little kids either quit their jobs, did not take a job, or “greatly changed” their jobs because of problems with child care, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. Business suffered as a result, with U.S. businesses losing about $4.4 billion annually due to workers missing work as a result of child care related breakdowns, according to Child Care Aware of America

But until toddlers began crashing work meetings moved online due to COVID-19, parents had an easier time protecting bosses from these hard truths. By doing so, we kept our reputations as reliable workers intact. But we also helped our employers view child care like menstruation — something we’ll discreetly take care of until it passes. That made it easier for government and employers to shirk any responsibility to help. And that, in turn, made it harder for policies like universal child care, paid parental leave, and flexible work hours to gain traction.

Child care on Jan. 29, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Now that the pandemic has lifted the curtain on how important child care is to the economy, parents must make it clear that going back to the way things were is not a solution. To do that, we can’t return to hiding our need for a child care system that works.  

I know well about the urge to hide one’s child care woes. Even before having kids, I’d often cover for office mates whose child care arrangements fell through. The underlying assumption: This was a transitory inconvenience that could and should be addressed with Band-Aid fixes. No need to involve (or alarm) the boss.

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As a new mom, I wrote about child welfare for a living, yet I weighed my child care options not in terms of what would work best for my kids, but what would work best for my boss. I decided that unlike a nanny share or in-home daycare, a child care center wouldn’t shut down when a caretaker had their own needs to tend to, and so would get me to my cubicle most reliably. But I quickly found out that unreliability permeates every form of care in a broken child care system.

At one center, when I dropped off my newly-crawling son one morning, I learned that because of a leaky roof all of the babies would be confined for the entire day in jumpers and swings. That marked my brutal initiation into understanding just how hard it is to be effective at work when you know your kid is having a miserable day — a revelation echoed by research suggesting that having higher-quality child care makes it likelier for some moms to hold onto their jobs and work more hours.

Struggles and why parents hide them

At another center, a long-neglected pipe burst, causing the center to close and leaving us parents scrambling to patch together ad hoc arrangements for five days. During work, we’d make frantic, furtive phone calls, sometimes ducking out early or showing up late to piece it all together. Yet many of us either grossly minimized the problem to our supervisors, or, like me, never uttered a word about it.  

None of this is to suggest that parents don’t have good reasons to hide child care struggles. Mother discrimination is very much alive today, and during this pandemic women have exited the workforce at an alarming rate. But those parents with secure jobs need to stretch beyond their comfort zones to let employers know how problematic their child care fixes are. They need to let employers know when their ability to return to work after welcoming a new baby hinges on finding child care they can afford and feel good about. And they need to be unapologetically upfront — and ask for help — when not having that help is hurting their performance.

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Men — whose status as parents tends to be met with financial reward rather than discrimination, and who are faring better in this economic downturn — are particularly well-positioned to educate employers about how a richly-resourced child care system would allow their businesses to hold onto valuable staff and boost their productivity. 

Businesses have finally realized that the child care crisis impacts the economy, and that it’s in their best, most selfish interests to become part of the solution. That knowledge was hard-earned, and a long time coming. Let's make sure it is not forgot. 

Kendra Hurley is a journalist who has written for numerous publications, including, Bloomberg's CityLabNew York Daily NewsGood Housekeeping. For many years she led the research on child care and early education at an applied policy research institute at The New School. Follow her on Twitter: @kendrahurleynyc