The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 21, 2015

Who minds the kids when mom works a nonstandard schedule?

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When we think about working parents, we usually think of parents working 9-to-5 schedules. But one in five US workers regularly works outside those hours, making it very difficult for them to manage child care arrangements.

How common are nonstandard schedules?

In our recent study, we found that 27 percent of low-income mothers (with household incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line) who have children age 12 and younger work a regular night or evening shift or work an irregular schedule. That is, they work a “nonstandard schedule.” Jobs where nonstandard schedules are common are among the fastest-growing jobs in the country, according to projections through 2020, and they are often low-wage jobs.

Of moms who work a nonstandard schedule, half work an irregular schedule, one that changes from day to day or week to week.

How do nonstandard schedules affect child care?

On top of the struggles all low-income mothers face in meeting child care costs, those working nonstandard schedules often must find care when most child care centers are closed or must arrange for occasional daytime care for a fluctuating schedule or on short notice.

In low-income families with children under age 5, about a third of mothers with nonstandard schedules use multiple child care arrangements, compared with 17 to 24 percent of moms with standard schedules. Using more providers poses greater transportation and logistical challenges. And multiple providers can create greater instability in children’s lives.

Married women working nonstandard hours rely heavily on their live-in partners to provide care. About a quarter of single moms rely on care from dads who live in separate households. Relatives also pitch in. Half of low-income single mothers working nonstandard schedules rely on relatives for child care compared with 30 percent of mothers who work standard schedules.  

Looking deeper into our data, it is clear that mothers with nonstandard schedules have child care needs beyond evening and weekend hours. Many parents also need daytime care. And those who work irregular schedules need daytime care that is flexible enough to accommodate their fluctuating schedules.

Why does this matter?

Nonstandard work schedules affect mothers’ ability to ensure consistent and quality care for their children. The 2014 reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant encourages states to increase the availability of child care during nonstandard hours, but it remains to be seen what tools states will use to make this happen.

Fatherhood engagement programs can help noncustodial fathers—those who don’t live with their children—become more engaged as regular source of care for their kids. And work supports such as transportation assistance, the earned income tax credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance can help low-income moms with nonstandard schedules as they juggle their demanding and often erratic schedules.

Finally, employers could do their part by giving workers more advanced notice of schedule changes, more say in setting work schedules, more flexibility in work hours, and paid time off for occasions when parents simply cannot find a caregiver.

Pre-school teachers Iris Irias, left, and Sandra Medina, second from left, work with students at the Refugee and Immigrant Family Center in Seattle.Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP.

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