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In the U.S., child care was expensive and difficult to obtain long before the pandemic. But coronavirus has closed schools, forced parents to work from home and shuttered some care facilities for good. With COVID-19 surging in much of the country, many parents may not be able to return to the workforce full-time. Paul Solman reports on the dilemma they face -- and its economic repercussions.
Today marked the 18th straight week of more than one million people filing for unemployment. That is a record level of claims.
Even as Congress and the White House debate what should be done next, one challenge remains a constant for parents, and that is child care.
It was difficult for many long before all of this, but the pandemic has magnified the problem, and it may prevent some parents from being able to return to the work force fully.
Paul Solman has the story. It's part of his regular reporting series, Making Sense.
My husband and I have not had child care since the pandemic started.
We're now, I think, in day 110, but who's counting?
All across America, working parents on the brink.
It's causing me a lot of anxiety trying to figure out how I'm going to sustain it.
I keep working, or should I stop and be with my children? Because I just can't give them my full undivided attention that they deserve.
The pandemic has shuttered schools, summer camps, sidelined virus-vulnerable grandparents. The result? Some 18 million Americans have no one to care for their young kids.
How tired are you?
Policy analyst Jaspreet Chowdhary and her husband are juggling working at home and parenting their two kids, which means late-night shifts after the kids hit the hay.
I have heard a lot of parents and people just saying that they're drinking more wine. I would say I'm drinking more coffee.
You don't look tired.
I have gotten so much better at putting on makeup. I feel like RuPaul would be proud.
Can you say hello?
Hey. How you doing?
Single mom Sarah Cieslik, a home care aide, can't work from home. While her kids sleep in her parents' basement, she works nights so she can watch them during the day.
I'm always tired. Sometimes my kids will say to me, "Mom, why don't you just go lay down and we will play on our tablet for a little while?"
Child care advocate Nina Perez can work from home. But how do you focus on the job while caring for a toddler?
Every person I have worked with for the last couple of months has met my daughter on video. We had a very loud toy go off in the background, and we just couldn't even hear anything. We had to stop the meeting.
We had to go back. And we have flexible jobs. We have incredible….
Suddenly, I couldn't hear Perez. Why?
She muted me.
But mental health care worker Leigha Thomason says, the more focus on the job, the less on the kids. During her work call?
I'm trying to push my hand out, to say, give me just a minute, and they can't wait that long, you know? So, by the time I get off the phone, I'm screaming at them, like, why couldn't you just give me that time?
But then I have — I have even cried. I have even cried at night, because I felt so guilty about getting upset with them, when they really weren't doing anything wrong. They were just being children.
Children as rattled by the pandemic as their parents.
Check out this viral video moment.
Everything has to be shut down for everybody to be safe. And it's just not fair, because everything that is fun also has to be shut down. And the only thing that is open is nothing.
Thomason's kids are older, calmer, but relegated to their rooms when she confers with patients. As a result, she says:
I feel like that their brains are not forming the way that they should, being stuck with no communication to an adult or other children.
And remote grade school learning?
I don't feel like they retain the information. I don't feel like they're as attentive as they normally would be.
What percentage of the value of school are they getting when they are learning remotely, do you think?
I'm going to go with about 20 percent.
Assisted living coordinator Kenya Jones has an 8-year-old.
She doesn't feel ready to go on to the third grade, based on how her second year ended. It was difficult learning Spanish and English virtually, because she goes to a dual-language school, so — and I don't know Spanish.
OK. But, for younger kids, what about day care? Well, it's unaffordable for most. What's more, about 20 percent of centers remain closed. And 86 percent of those that are open have fewer kids and are on the edge.
We're operating at 12 percent, and we need to be at like 75 percent capacity in order to kind of break even.
Dana Miller reopened a day care center, with plenty of protection. But it cost money.
What's your guess as to how long you can keep going before it's all just too much economically?
I want to say maybe another month?
Three-point-five billion dollars in CARES Act funds went to day cares, but Miller says it isn't enough. She made a YouTube video to publicize her fight to survive.
Dana Miller (singing):
I will survive.
What's going to happen if day care centers close their doors and employees can't go to work?
We're already seeing what happens.
Alicia Sasser Modestino:
Thirteen percent of working parents right now are saying that they have either lost a job or reduced their hours directly because of the lack of child care.
Under new federal rules, some parents not working due to lack of child care can apply for unemployment benefits, some for limited family and medical leave.
But economist Alicia Modestino says there are actually few good options.
Six-and-a-half percent of working parents have lost a job directly because of child care. And of those who have lost a job, most of it is falling on women.
Tara Riley was given a leave from her cancer research job to watch her kids. She was called back this month, told she had to return to the office from 8:00 to 5:00. Her response?
I will work 40 hours a week or more, but I can't be committed to being in front of a computer from 8:00 to 5:00.
And they said, we will accept this e-mail as your voluntary resignation. And that was that. And I wasn't asking for a lot of flexibility. But what I really think it is, is more that they were looking to shed a whole bunch of people. And here's a whole category of people that we can just be rid of.
Jaspreet Chowdhary thinks she may have to quit her job to care for the kids, but, she says:
I have stepped out of the work force twice, once after my each of my kids were born, and it was much harder than I expected it to be — to reenter. And there is still, like, a parenting penalty, in terms of, like, promotion and career advancement.
And I feel like, if I did it again, it would just be devastating.
At least she has a husband with a good job. But poorer families, many of them Black and Latinx, have even fewer child care options, especially single moms, says economist Michelle Holder watching her daughter while working from home.
Women, in situations where they can't afford child care and they can't rely on extended family or their community, they have to look to scaling back hours.
As single mom Kenya Jones has had to do, without full-time care for her son.
Fridays with no child care, I either miss work or I find someone to watch him.
Home care worker Sarah Cieslik, also single, reduced her weekly night shift hours from 40 to 24 to care for her sons, which obviously reduced her pay.
Almost by half. I'm very fortunate to have food stamps.
And so, as the economy, however haltingly, reopens, we're left with questions, like Michelle's Holder's:
What do we do with our kids? How do we make sure they're safe and well-cared-for? Because one-third of women who work in this country are mothers.
And if those with young kids can't work, says Nina Perez, how does the economy revive?
I think we're really seeing the impact of decades of underinvestment in child care.
It's really been on the backs of the providers and parents for so long, and something that's so critical to our economy, to the ability for people to work. And now we're seeing this fragile system really break down because of it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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