Essential workers need child care support

State should provide direct financial assistance now

ESSENTIAL WORKERS  are taking care of our state and of our nation: healthcare workers, grocery clerks, bank tellers, first responders, domestic workers, restaurant workers, janitors, and so many more. Yet many of us are fighting to keep ourselves afloat, especially as we struggle to find care for our children while we go to work.

With licensed child care in limited supply and many schools still operating on remote or hybrid models, it’s getting harder each day to manage both our jobs and the needs of our families during the pandemic. Our choices are to spend a significant portion of our paycheck on child care, find a friend or a family member to rely on, or leave the workforce to take care for our kids.

More than 2.5 million women left the workforce last year, according to the Department of Labor. The pandemic’s child care challenges are causing women, particularly black and Latinx women, to drop out of the workforce or reduce their work hours. As we mark March as the Women’s History Month, state leaders must address the needs of essential workers, especially women workers, and create actionable steps to provide reliable child care solutions that will not make us choose between our jobs and our children.

To truly honor the contributions of essential workers as well as the strides made by women, our state must direct additional pandemic support in the form of funding to address child care needs of parents of both young and school-age children. More than 10 million working women rely on child care and schools to keep their children safe while they work, according to data from the Brookings Institution. Yet over 1 in 4 child care providers nationwide still remain closed.

Parents or caregivers who are essential workers like us are struggling more than ever. It’s either remote school, or hybrid schooling that can periodically revert back to fully remote if the school discovers a case of COVID-19, wreaking havoc on a worker’s ability to work steady hours. If you can find a spot in an open child care program or supervised remote learning site, it’s almost impossible to pay for so many hours on the salaries we make. In Massachusetts, the average salary for essential workers is 25.4 percent less than the state’s average.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, much of the discussion over child care has centered on parents working from home, while the unique needs of essential workers have yet to be fully accommodated. For three months, Massachusetts opened free emergency child care for essential workers, but since that program ended there has been no added support for workers on the frontline whose child care support systems have broken down during the pandemic.

While there is hope on the horizon with vaccines becoming available to more workers and plans to reopen more schools, the recovery is just beginning for working and unemployed women of color who have been hit hard by the pandemic. Congress recently passed the American Rescue Plan, which provides $39 billion in child care relief funding, including $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program that states can spend on child care for essential workers, regardless of income.

State and local leaders must also step up to the plate, providing the additional resources needed to help frontline workers secure and pay for childcare. This support must continue once the school year ends and families patch together care arrangements to get through the summer months. While summer camps will operate with many COVID precautions, they may be in more limited supply and high demand, after kids have spent months behind their computer screens.

By providing direct financial assistance to essential workers with children, the state could help support our children and our families, and would ensure essential workers have what we need to continue providing the critical services everyone relies on. The pandemic’s economic crisis has tightened families’ budgets, with many having to choose between covering child care and other essential expenses. When working caregivers are in the tough position of having to make difficult tradeoffs, direct cash assistance in the form of a child care allowance or stipend would be a lifeline.

Families could choose to direct those resources to the child care arrangement that best suits their needs, including but not limited to compensating new or existing care by family, friends, or neighbors; participating in a five-family cooperative; or helping to pay for licensed child care or supervised remote learning. These resources should be directed to low- and middle-income workers that are not eligible for a state child care subsidy but need child care assistance while they work on the front lines.

Massachusetts can look to other states for solutions. Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood launched the CTCARES for Frontline Workers program last April, to help essential workers’ pay for child care. This was a short-term program and closed last June.

Meet the Author

Eunicia Gomes

Personal care attendant, Member of 1199SEIU
Meet the Author

Marie Menard

Adult caregiver/Organizing fellow, Matahari Women Workers' Center
New Jersey created the School-Age Child Care Assistance to Families program with $150 million, run by the Department of Human Services, to help with child care costs as schools operate remotely. Qualifying families were eligible for up to $1,900 in full-time child care assistance. With the Biden-Harris administration’s COVID relief package bringing significant resources to our state for child care, Massachusetts should look to these programs as models for how to utilize funding.

Essential workers have been risking their lives processing food, taking care of people, and keeping the economy running during the pandemic. We deserve more than just a “thank you” at the check-out line. We deserve a childcare system that will allow us to go to work and not worry about the well-being of our children. The real solution is in building a universal child care system that supports all families with affordable, accessible care that is offered during the hours they work. But to get us through this pandemic, we need immediate child care relief to keep women working and ensure that our needs are front and center as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eunicia Gomes is a personal care attendant and member of 1199SEIU based in Brockton. She is a proud mother of four children. Marie Menard is an adult caregiver and a member and organizing fellow at Matahari Women Workers’ Center. She works in Boston and lives in Malden and is the mother of an 11-year-old.