As COVID-19 began to spread in the United States last March, many child care centers and home-based child care providers closed. And although providers have slowly begun to return to work, as of December, the workforce is still nearly 20 percent smaller than it was before the pandemic.
When compared with the 6 percent national drop in employment over the same time period, the challenges facing the child care field are clear. These massive job losses plague a workforce already beset with low wages and challenging working conditions.
And because the child care/early childhood education (CC/ECE) field is disproportionately composed of Black and Latina women, who face inequitable opportunities and significant wage gaps, this crisis has had a major impact on the earnings and career trajectories of many women of color.
Though the pandemic has presented the CC/ECE workforce with new challenges, it has also increased awareness of the importance and fragility of child care, creating an opportunity for the field to think creatively about how to best support an economic recovery that addresses workers’ needs.
How can we better support the child care workforce?
We asked a diverse set of experts in the CC/ECE field—including policymakers, researchers, and advocates—to share their thoughts on how policymakers could support workers during these times, focusing on strategies that accomplish the following:
- support improved compensation or resources and address structural challenges that were caused or exacerbated by the pandemic
- help address the racial and ethnic inequities in available resources, compensation, and supports
- factor in the new stressors workers face because of the COVID-19 pandemic
- are feasible or actionable in the short term at the local, state, or federal level within the current funding and political context
- support a broad continuum of the child care workforce, including home-based child care providers and the center-based workforce
Respondents provided an array of policy suggestions at a range of financial commitments and time frames that could help stabilize employment, improve working conditions, and promote equitable opportunities for CC/ECE workers.
Some address the disproportionate impact the pandemic and economic crisis has had on Black and Latina workers. Others focus on supporting workers in certain child care sectors where Black and Latina women are more likely to work. Others offer additional supports for systems where Black and Latina women may face different or more severe barriers to career advancement and adequate compensation compared with their white counterparts.
As states decide how to allocate the $10 billion in new child care funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and as the Biden administration and philanthropic community consider strategies to shore up the CC/ECE field, these recommendations—falling into four broad categories—could inform efforts to stabilize the workforce and serve as starting points for action. (To go deeper, read our report.)
1. Implementing a rapid crisis response
These six policy strategies respond to the immediate CC/ECE workforce crisis.
- create a mechanism to report unsafe working conditions during the pandemic to better protect the health and well-being of the CC/ECE workforce
- provide personal protective equipment, sanitizing supplies, free access to COVID-19 testing, and priority for vaccines to the CC/ECE workforce to reduce the health risks they face while caring for children
- provide bonus pay for CC/ECE workers during the pandemic to address the additional risks they are taking on to meet health and safety standards
- extend supports to relative and license-exempt home-based providers, who are often not part of policy strategies and supports yet are a critical component of the CC/ECE workforce
- expand access to key federal safety net benefits for the CC/ECE workforce to address the material hardship and challenges that many face in meeting their basic needs
- increase mental health consultations for the child care workforce to address the additional trauma and stressors created by the pandemic
2. Informing key policy decisions to maximize impact
These policies would allow greater access to resources and support for the workforce, increasing the impact of existing levers.
- use contract-based financing approaches, which can stabilize resources for providers, to support the workforce
- expand access to virtual learning, training, and online credentialing support to make it easier for CC/ECE workers to access professional development
- expand networks of family child care providers and other home-based caregivers to provide coordinated access to supports and resources
- connect child care settings to more stable early care and education funding sources, such as state prekindergarten or Head Start
- expand use of shared services approaches to reduce administrative burden and increase efficiencies of scale for smaller providers
- base child care subsidy payment rates on livable or minimum wages
3. Driving equity-based systems change
These suggested policies involve changing existing systems in ways that could directly improve equity for the CC/ECE workforce.
- expand home visits for home-based providers to increase the supports and resources provided for this sector
- rethink compensation to pay CC/ECE workers for time on all tasks (including time spent cleaning and planning), which would improve overall compensation and make it more equitable with other educators
- provide translation services to make licensing, registration, and subsidy resources more accessible to the many CC/ECE workers whose primary language is not English
- reform licensing systems to reflect the unique realities of home-based providers and better support the home-based CC/ECE workforce
- rethink quality and improvement systems to support equity
4. Laying the foundation for effective action
Finally, these two strategies could help increase the power of and improve the career paths for the many women in the CC/ECE workforce.
- support leadership opportunities for the CC/ECE workforce to expand their involvement and voice in advocacy and policy
- strengthen workforce registries that maintain data on the workforce to support better decisionmaking on issues affecting the CC/ECE workforce
The child care workforce is at risk
Without efforts to stabilize the child care field and to address the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, we risk permanent job loss, as programs close and may not reopen, and serious damage to a field dominated by women earning low wages, particularly Black and Latina women. These risks not only affect them personally—they also affect the broader labor force of women, and especially women of color, who are facing greater levels of job loss in part because of the child care crisis.
Though the challenges facing the child care workforce are myriad and severe, the lessons learned through the pandemic have created an opportunity for governments to stabilize and improve the child care field.
As new funding is dispersed and the presidential administration gets to work, policymakers have an exciting opportunity to make an impactful change and build a stronger future for the hundreds of thousands of workers who care for our country’s children.