Just a few weeks ago, early learning advocates in Washington were celebrating major new investments in high quality child care, as well as a growing awareness of how crucial it is to the well-being of our young people and the health of our economy.
Now the child-care system in Washington and around the country is on the verge of collapse. As of Monday, 870 child-care sites across Washington with a licensed capacity of almost 43,000 children had shut down because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Of those, 578 sites were serving almost 6,000 children receiving child-care subsidies from the state.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children anticipates that more than half of child-care programs will close nationally, and that few businesses will survive closure without help. Thousands of providers — overwhelmingly low-income women and people of color — will be out of work.
In the short term, this only worsens the COVID-19 crisis because so many front-line health-care workers — especially nurses — have young children. More than 25% of Washington health-care workers are raising children 13 and younger. Hospitals, clinics and other facilities were already struggling to keep nurses at work with schools closing around the state. Shuttering child-care providers just makes the problem worse.
We must ensure that every parent in these and other essential jobs has a safe and healthy place for their children. Federal, state and local responses should provide resources to keep more child-care sites from closing and help workers and business owners at facilities that have been forced to close.
Gov. Jay Inslee has declared child-care workers essential, exempt from his stay-at-home order. But we must back that declaration up with support, and fast. We need to show how thankful we are for these essential workers who get neither the pay, the benefits, nor the recognition they deserve.
In a letter to the Washington congressional delegation, I and 64 of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature called on Congress to include major support for child care in the latest stimulus bill. Among our requests were:
• Working parents in health care and other essential jobs need help paying for child care, which was too scarce and too expensive before the crisis.
• Small child-care businesses need grants and other economic assistance to pay staff and cover fixed costs so they can stay in business.
• Child-care workers should be included in assistance programs like paid leave and health-care coverage. Most currently work without those protections.
The recently signed federal stimulus package includes $3.5 billion targeted toward child care. Of that, $58 million is likely to come to Washington state. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, but the good news is the importance of child care in helping deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is clear.
We must also look beyond the immediate health crisis to make sure we have a healthy and functional child-care system in the future.
Many child-care providers are small businesses with razor-thin profit margins; others are nonprofits dependent on funding from governments or charities. All are in grave danger of going out of business within weeks or months without support.
If the system collapses, workers will have nowhere to send their children when the COVID-19 crisis abates, making economic recovery that much harder for all of us. Even before the crisis, we had a dramatic shortage of child care, and the care that was available was too expensive for many families. A 2019 study by the Washington Department of Commerce and the Association of Washington Business found that more than a quarter of Washington parents had quit a job or left school because they couldn’t find or afford child care. Businesses are all too aware that the cost of turnover and missed work due to child-care issues in the state cost them $2 billion per year. And that’s in a booming economy.
King County committed $2.2 million this week for emergency child care for first responders, which is great. However, the child-care issue is statewide, so while this aid is needed, not every county that needs help can make a similar commitment.
We have just begun to recognize that child care is the backbone of our economy. The state budget makes significant and meaningful investments to improve child-care access and affordability in Washington over the next two years, and there is bipartisan support for larger investments. We can’t let COVID-19 break that backbone.