The COVID-19 pandemic has strained our already fragile child care system to the breaking point. Without immediate investment in this essential economic support, thousands of providers will reluctantly go out of business, leaving thousands of working parents — and the employers they work for — scrambling for child care solutions.
Washington’s child care providers have been deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee. Many are struggling to stay open. They are putting themselves at risk for catching COVID-19 due to not having access to personal protective equipment. They are operating with reduced incomes as many parents are keeping their children home. And they are managing new social distancing guidelines and running out of essential supplies like toilet paper and hand soap.
Despite these valiant efforts, more than 25 percent of our state’s child care providers have closed because they have either experienced a COVID-19 illness or exposure, decided the risks to the families and children they serve is too great, or simply cannot afford to keep their doors open on such reduced incomes.
Our state’s existing child care system is full of creative, hard-working and dedicated early learning educators with years of experience in child development and in running their small businesses. More than half of these providers have been rated high-quality in our state’s rigorous quality rating and improvement system, Early Achievers.
Losing these providers would be devastating to our economy in two important ways: Fewer working parents will have access to the child care that allows them to work and build their financial futures, and fewer young children will have access to quality early learning that prepares them for future learning success.
Washington employers rely on child care every day. When child care is available, it gives them access to a wide labor pool, and it allows the working parents they hire to show up for work every day ready to be productive. Yet Washington’s child care system was in crisis before COVID-19 struck. Due to years of public underfunding combined with years of economic boom times, child care was in high demand while at the same time becoming increasingly challenging to operate due to rising costs.
This imbalance isn’t just a challenge for child care providers and the families they serve. It is costly for businesses, too. In 2017, the lack of affordable child care led to a loss of $2.08 billion in direct costs to employers, according to the October 2019 report “The Mounting Costs of Child Care” released by the Department of Commerce.
As the state begins to contemplate our “new normal” once the pandemic is better controlled and the stay-home order lifts, two things are clear: Employers will need employees, including employees who are parents, and parents of young children will need child care. Making sure Washington’s child care system can be there when we need it must be a high priority for national and state lawmakers.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided only a fraction of the investment needed to keep our child care system afloat. Child care providers have been underpaid for decades (most earn less than pet groomers) and most have no benefits, including health insurance. Greater investment is essential to keeping our providers safe, healthy and able to continue to exist post-pandemic.
COVID-19 has changed many things in our lives. One thing it has not changed is the key role child care plays in the health of our economy. Investing in this crucial workforce makes sense, the same way investing in our infrastructure makes economic sense. Let’s ensure there is a robust, widely available child care system in our state. It is what our working families and businesses need to successfully recover.