The U.S. Coronavirus Response Must Meet Health Workers’ Child Care Needs

A nurse practitioner puts on protective gear in a tent in a hospital parking lot before testing a possible coronavirus patient in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 16, 2020.

When West Virginia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 17, the United States passed a grim new milestone: The novel coronavirus that causes this disease has spread to all states, plus Washington, D.C., and several U.S. territories. Despite efforts to “flatten the curve” by engaging in social distancing, the number of cases in certain areas could overwhelm the health care system. Hospital beds and lifesaving ventilators are in short supply, as is personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves.

But assessing the system’s readiness must also consider the health care workforce. This column presents new data suggesting that a large segment of the U.S. health care workforce comprises parents of children too young to remain home alone unattended. As schools and child care programs across the country close to comply with social distancing requirements, these health workers will likely find themselves without reliable child care, which will impede their ability to perform their critical work. To ensure that health providers with young children can do their jobs now and in future crises, child care must be part of emergency planning.

Millions of health workers are struggling with child care during the coronavirus outbreak

This column presents new data on health care workers across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., who have children under age 14.* The Center for American Progress finds that almost 5 million health care workers—around 29 percent of the entire workforce—have children that are too young to be left home alone as schools and child care programs close. In 15 states, more than 30 percent of the health care workforce are parents of children younger than age 14. (see Table 1)

Table 1

Further CAP analysis shows that most of these nearly 5 million workers—79 percent—are women. Because mothers’ employment is especially likely to suffer when they cannot find reliable child care, this finding suggests that millions of vital health workers currently could be struggling to secure child care, endangering their ability to work at a moment when the U.S. health care infrastructure is already spread too thin.

Even before the current wave of school and child care closures, parents working in this critical industry have faced serious child care obstacles. The price of child care is out of reach for many parents working in the health sector; the median personal income for these workers is $40,233, but center-based child care for two young children costs an average of more than $20,000.** To ensure workforce readiness, policymakers must think comprehensively about their workforces’ needs, including the supply and affordability of child care.

Policymakers must provide emergency child care to health personnel

The CAP analysis shows that a large segment of the workforce across the United States will potentially need reliable emergency child care in order to do their jobs. Nearly 1 in 3 health care workers has a young child at home and could lose their child care arrangement; this drastically undercuts the effectiveness and preparedness of the workforce. To this end, any federal stimulus responding to the COVID-19 pandemic must recognize the importance of child care for essential workers and provide sufficient funding to support all essential workers in a way that ensures children and providers remain healthy and safe.

Fortunately, cities and states across the country are beginning to heed the needs of their first responders. For example, Colorado plans to provide emergency child care to eligible workers, including nurses, doctors, hospital support personnel, staff at long-term care facilities, and other nonmedical emergency personnel. On March 17, the same day that there were confirmed COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, Ohio announced plans to open “temporary pandemic child care centers,” in response to requests from several hospitals. New York City plans to open approximately 100 Regional Enrichment Centers throughout the city to accommodate the children of essential service providers. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Vermont have classified grocery clerks as emergency personnel, meaning that they qualify for child care while schools are closed.

As these localities spring into action to provide emergency child care, they should also make assistance available to child care providers, who must remain vigilant about ensuring children’s health and safety by ramping up hygienic practices and avoiding overcrowding. To recognize early educators’ commitment and extra effort, local policymakers should consider paying them an enhanced rate. Child care employees should also be guaranteed paid sick leave to ensure that they can afford to stay home and avoid exposing others if they feel sick, with additional funds made available for providers to pay substitutes when needed. States should continue to make additional support available for child care services in this time, such as increasing subsidy rates for providers who stay open to serve essential workers and paying providers by enrollment rather than attendance as children stay home due to COVID-19.

Conclusion

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, the key strategy of the public health response is to slow its transmission as much as possible so that the health care system—including workers—is not overwhelmed. In addition to ramping up hospital readiness, officials must consider how best to support essential workers who may not be able to continue working without child care support.

Cristina Novoa is a senior policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Steven Jessen-Howard is a research assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Maura Calsyn, Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, and CAP’s Art and Editorial team for their contributions to this column.

* All estimates that are not otherwise cited are based on an analysis of Steven Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic and Health Research, 2018 American Community Survey: 5-year estimates” (Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center, 2020), available at https://usa.ipums.org/usa/. For this analysis, health workers include individuals who are currently in the labor force in one of the following seven industries, as defined by the American Community Survey: offices of physicians; offices of other health practitioners; outpatient care centers; other health care services; general medical and surgical hospitals and specialty hospitals; nursing care facilities; and residential care.

** The average price of child care for two young children is based on the “average of average” cost of center-based care for one infant—$11,444—and one 4-year-old—$9,100—from a 2019 Child Care Aware of America report. The median total personal income for health workers with children younger than age 14 is $40,233.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.