When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down businesses and schools in March 2020, a new phrase passed into common use: essential worker. The term referred particularly to employees whose jobs were essential to societal function and could not be accomplished remotely, like those in health care, food production, and sanitization. But when employees in these sectors went to work, what happened to their young children?
The Herald interviewed three child care providers, two of whom have their businesses in Freeport and one of whom sits on the board of the Child Care Council of Nassau, Inc. Their words showed why they felt that the argument for government funding of early child care is compelling.
“I feel like the reason child care became a topic of conversation was because the pandemic proved that -- where are all these children going to go now?” said Janna Rodriguez, 32, owner of The Innovative Daycare Corp., a home-based child care firm in Freeport. “This is a real crisis. … These are actual living, happening issues that families are dealing with. And the issues aren’t just affecting families, they’re affecting the providers that are providing the service.”
The pandemic showed how hard it can be to accomplish the work that essential workers do if they have young kids.
“During the first part of the pandemic,” said Clariona Griffith, who owns Safe Child Early Learning Center in Hempstead, “the essential worker parents didn’t have to pay for child care. It was free because the government provided waivers. But the waivers expired, so everybody’s back to paying for childcare.”
Griffith, who is a Hempstead Village trustee and who sits on the board of the Child Care Council of Nassau, said child care averages $310 to $360 per week, per child. High-earning parents can afford to foot the expense or to keep one parent at home until the children reach school age, but moderate-income and low-income families struggle.
“If you’re only making $10 to $15 an hour,” said Griffith, “it doesn’t add up. Parents are in a predicament where they have to go back to work, but they can’t afford child care. So it becomes a great struggle for a lot of our parents.”
Griffith said that parents who obtain a government subsidy to help pay for child care may face a tough dilemma if they get promoted at work.
“Let’s say now you make $2.00 more per hour,” said Griffith, “Now you make too much money to qualify for the government subsidy, but you have three little kids. You’re going to say to yourself, the only way to keep my childcare is if I stay at my same salary. So you can never move up. You’re trapped.”
At Innovative Daycare, Rodriguez does what not many providers will do.
“My mission is to support low-income families,” Rodriguez said, “to support children of color, marginalized groups of people that really don’t have access to certain resources that really need the support and need to have their children in an environment that helps them flourish and grow.”
Griffith said that the provisions for universal pre-k in President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan would boost the availability of workers because, if care for ages 3 and 4 were paid, parents could afford to return to work.
Rodriguez’s point – that many essential workers needing child care are people in marginalized groups – speaks to the readiness of higher-income people to accept essential services from those workers, but balk at contributing tax dollars to help pay for their children’s daily care. The end result is that, while parents struggle to pay child care costs, day care employers struggle to pay their employees enough to retain their services.
Naheed Khan, 61, is the director of Ready Set Grow Learning Academy, which recently opened in the Freeport Armory building on Babylon Turnpike. Khan has more than 21 years of experience in child care.
“Most day care employers don’t offer any insurance, no health benefits,” said Khan, “because it’s way too expensive for them. They’re not paying employees for holidays and also if employees want a week off for vacation after a couple of years, they are not fully paid. As soon as they find something better, they leave us.”
Griffin, Rodriguez, and Khan all pointed out that child care providers cannot take breaks during the year the way school districts do. Also, if Covid problems force schools to shut down, the teachers still get paid. Not so in child care.
“We actually had our first Covid case in 2 years about 2 weeks ago,” said Rodriguez. “It was from a school ager” – a child who is in school during the day and comes to Innovative Daycare for after-school hours. “We quarantined for one week and I lost $3,000 that week because the Department of Social Services would not pay me.”
In other words, Rodriguez’s reward for taking on parents who pay partly with subsidy money was that, when she had to quarantine according to government mandate, the government would not pay the subsidies for the lost week.
“A lot of day cares have closed because of Covid,” Griffith said. “My business went back five years. If we’re told to close down again for Covid, we’re done.”
On Sept. 14, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury under Secretary Janet Yellen released a report titled, “The Economics of Child Care Supply in the United States.” It summarized the argument for government investment in child care by saying, “While our existing system leads to chronic underinvestment in our children and hinders many parents’ ability to contribute to our nation’s economy and make a solid living, a well-funded child care sector will help us all achieve more of our economic potential.”