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Guest opinion: COVID-19 has exposed child care as critical infrastructure to our workforce

On March 30, the Utah Child Care Task Force announced backup emergency services for children whose parents keep the public healthy and safe.
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On March 30, the Utah Child Care Task Force announced backup emergency services for children whose parents keep the public healthy and safe. I have been honored to be a small part of those efforts, and I applaud so many for their efforts to support our essential workforce.

With schools dismissed and private child care centers closing from low attendance, essential employees like health care workers and first responders are left with an unneeded worry: Who will take care of their kids as they head to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic? They may be new to the state without a support system, or relying on friends and family who are worried about proximity to those exposed to COVID-19 daily, especially higher-risk older parents.

This situation has exposed child care as critical infrastructure to our workforce. While especially important for emergency situations like this, many Utahns regularly rely on child care services in order to work and make ends meet. Just a few short weeks ago, when Utah was basking in accolades as the strongest economy in the nation, we were also suffering from being the last in the nation for accessibility to child care — and one of the worst for gender wage gaps. There was only 1 child care slot for every 4 children in need. Now, more than a third of our child care centers have closed down, decreasing our supply even more. When there is so much more demand than supply, many people are limited in their choices, especially women. Can they work? Can they pay their bills? Will the business workforce be affected? How?

Why isn’t the market meeting the need, you ask? Like all educational industries, child care relies heavily on labor. In order for it to be safe, high-quality and educational for our children, staff-to-children ratios need to be high. Locations need to be convenient for families, safe for kids and affordable for providers. The only way to cut costs and be competitive is to cut one of these important pieces. There is a reason public schools are heavily funded by all of us.

Although the Utah Office of Child Care is meeting this urgent need during a pandemic, businesses and lawmakers need to meet the industry in the middle when the economy starts to improve, as 38% of child care providers — so far — have permanently closed their doors. The parents depending on these centers need to go back to work to provide for their families.

Businesses already providing child care for their employees should be applauded. Hospitals especially have long recognized the need for child care supports largely due to their female-dominated workforce. If we are all trying to get closer to parity, what can we learn from hospitals’ efforts? What can we learn from businesses providing child care that are not traditionally female oriented?

My recent research shows that the return on investment for a child care benefit is positive. The cost savings from a decrease in turnover plus the increase of parity (which increases productivity), equates to significant benefits for a company.

Recent legislation incentivizing employers who provide a child care benefit was contested this past session. Has the lack of child care affected your life? Talk to your legislators about strengthening our child care industry. It needs support, especially now. Let your employers know how child care breakdowns affect you. Ask yourself if your child under the age of 5 is getting the best early learning experiences. And if not, let’s work together to do something about it.

Page Checketts is the founder of Utah Child Care Cooperative.