Miren Algorri has been a licensed day care provider for 22 years — her 23rd anniversary is coming up this month.
Ordinarily, Algorri and her assistant take care of up to 14 kids in her home in Chula Vista, California. The youngest right now is 16 months old. “We still rock him to sleep,” Algorri said. The oldest is 8, and she has been caring for him for six years.
But on Tuesday, she told Vox, “I am sad to announce that today we have zero attendance.”
Algorri was still technically open on Tuesday, and said she hopes to stay that way in case any families need her. It is her “duty and responsibility to these families so they can continue to make a living,” she told Vox. But as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, she’s not sure how long that will last.
“We are running very low on cleaning, disinfectant, and sanitizing supplies,” she said. “When I don’t have those supplies, then I will have to stop providing services.”
Algorri still has income — all of the families her day care serves receive subsidies from the state of California, and those have not been cut off. But she sees other day care providers who rely on private payment losing all of their income. Meanwhile, six of the parents whose kids she cares for are restaurant servers who were laid off after California ordered bars and restaurants closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Algorri has been trying to help her fellow providers and the families she serves by sharing resources to get through the crisis, whether it’s the number of a food or diaper bank or the news that Taco Bell is offering free tacos. “I know it’s not healthy,” she said, “but on those empty bellies, whatever they can get.”
Her story is mirrored across the nation, as child care providers face layoffs and loss of income as well as concerns about how or whether to stay open as coronavirus spreads around the country. Though states have closed K-12 schools in recent weeks, many have allowed — or even encouraged — day cares to remain open. That leaves some day care providers to decide for themselves whether to shut down and lose their livelihoods, or stay open and risk exposing themselves and their families to Covid-19.
In other cases, the decision is made for them as families pull their kids out and stop paying — according to one report, child care providers around the country lost more than 70 percent of attendance in a single week as the pandemic worsened.
The crisis is hitting child care providers especially hard because they already earn disproportionately low incomes — an average of just $10.72 an hour — and many lack health insurance and paid sick leave. Day cares are typically small businesses without a lot of cash on hand, and a long-term closure could force them out of business. According to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 30 percent of child care providers would have to shut down permanently if forced to close for two weeks or more. But for some families, especially those of health care workers and other essential employees, their services are more important than ever.
Child care workers say the pandemic is highlighting something they’ve been trying to impress upon the public for years: that although their services keep the economy going, their low pay and lack of labor protections leave them incredibly vulnerable in a crisis. As Algorri put it, “We’re overworked, we’re underpaid, and we don’t even exist.”
Child care workers are at risk both medically and financially
All 50 states have closed K-12 schools in response to the pandemic, with an increasing number now saying the closures will extend through the end of the academic year. But America’s early child care system is less centralized than its schools, ranging from larger day care centers to smaller in-home day cares that may have one (or zero) employees in addition to the owner. While some are supported, at least in part, by public subsidies, many rely entirely on fees paid by parents. And many states that have closed schools haven’t extended the same order to day cares: In New York and California, for example, some day care centers remained open as of this week, although many, like Algorri’s, had little or no attendance.
For many providers, the decision about whether to keep coming to work during this time is a difficult one. “I know providers who are 65 years old, so they’re part of the vulnerable population,” said Algorri, a member of the union Child Care Providers United. She’s also heard from providers who have been forced to close because they live with older family members and don’t want to risk exposing them to the virus.
Others say they want to stay open to help parents who need to work right now. Marisol Hoffmann, who operates two day care centers in New York’s Dutchess County, says parents who use her centers include a single mom who is a state trooper and a dad who is a police officer. “They need to work,” she says.
But of the roughly 25 children who usually come to her centers, only about four to six are currently attending. For the parents of the others, she’s handling payment on a case-by-case basis. “Although some parents are paying, we’ve got some parents who can’t, who have been laid off,” she said.
That means the business has taken a financial hit. And one of her biggest concerns is how to keep paying her eight employees.
Elsewhere in the country, day cares are laying off staff. Leslie Spina, owner of Kinder Academy in Philadelphia, laid off her 100 employees on March 20, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. She said she wanted to make the call sooner rather than later so that her employees could begin collecting unemployment.
“My biggest fear is that I can’t go back to work soon,” one of her employees, Yashira Morant, told the Inquirer. “If I have no income coming in, what happens to us?”
Other day care employees say they’ve stayed home from work due to fears of coronavirus, but have done so without pay. Jessica, a Connecticut child care worker, told Time magazine that she was told to report to work last month or risk not being paid. But because of the hands-on nature of child care work, she didn’t feel comfortable going in. For example, “When I’m feeding the child, I’m touching all the things in their lunchboxes,” she said.
While laid-off workers can get extra unemployment benefits from the recently passed stimulus bill, people who aren’t going to work because of concerns about coronavirus are not eligible.
And child care workers often have little safety net to fall back on. Many are low-income: Between 2014 and 2016, 53 percent were on at least one public assistance program, according to a 2018 report. They are also more likely than other workers to lack health insurance and paid sick leave. Many — 75 percent in Los Angeles County, for example — are immigrants, and many speak English as a second language, which could make it more difficult to apply for unemployment, especially if the stimulus package creates new or complex methods for doing so.
Operating a daycare is an “entrepreneur opportunity for people who are first coming to this country,” Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center, told Vox. “Traditional relief packages are just going to be really hard for people to access,” she said.
As Algorri put it, “I know we’re all in this together, but at the same time, as providers, we are on our own.”
Workers say the pandemic highlights the need for basic protections
Even as many parents keep their children out of day care during this time, child care remains necessary around the country, especially for health care workers and others on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Many areas, including New York City, have set up emergency child care centers for the children of essential workers.
But even in the midst of great need, providers say they are still often going unrecognized by American society. But “the nurses, and the techs, and the doctors could not go to work” if it wasn’t for child care providers who are “open and willing to work through this pandemic,” Algorri said.
And experts say that without support, child care centers will close permanently, leading to joblessness and a long-term shortage of this crucial service. “Child care will not be there for us when we’re all ready to go back to work if we don’t include them specifically, in a targeted, effective way, in the relief packages,” Kruckel said.
The most recent stimulus legislation included $3.5 billion in funding for child care, but Kruckel says the need could be closer to $50 billion to support providers who aren’t getting parent fees right now, as well as to provide cleaning supplies, mental health support, and other resources to providers who are staying open to care for children of essential workers.
Many say the crisis only highlights the needs of a workforce that has long been largely ignored. In addition to some acknowledgment of their work, Algorri says child care workers around the country need better working conditions, including a living wage and health insurance, not just now but also for the future.
“We want to be healthy,” she said. “If we’re healthy, we can serve you, we can serve the community.”
Correction, April 6: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of a survey on the impact of closures on child care providers. It was conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.