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Gina Petry: COVID-19 and child care: It’s time to fix this struggling system

By Gina Petry Radical Women Seattle

The coronavirus epidemic has dramatically changed the face of child care in Washington State, while also raising clues about how to repair an inadequate system that has become much worse. Child Care Aware Washington, a statewide referral agency, says COVID-19 has contributed to the closure of 1,303 child-care programs statewide. This is catastrophic. Not having stable child care is a losing situation. The lack of social investment in child care and early education limits future school achievement for kids, as well as opportunities for mothers.

Some steps have been taken to mitigate the blow.

Governor Inslee has eased pressures on providers by waiving several requirements for licensed child-care workers, including requiring federal fingerprint background checks before completing the licensing process.

The King County Council invested $2.2 million to provide free child care for eligible families of essential workers – medical professionals and support staff, first responders, child-care providers themselves, and others such as grocery, pharmacy and transit workers.

The city of Seattle has earmarked $1 million per month for child care that will serve over 700 kids of health care professionals, first responders and grocery store workers.

These are important first steps, but they are not enough. All of these measures apply only to preschool and school age kids. What about the infants and toddlers of essential workers? What about the children of transit workers, taxi and rideshare drivers, and Instacart delivery personnel?

State officials are urging workers not deemed “essential” to keep their children at home. For many parents laid off or telecommuting, this feels like the safest option. But what is wrong with this picture? Again, it assumes women will find a way to provide this essential labor free of charge as they always do – on top of working for 79% of men’s wages, plus cooking, shopping, cleaning, and caring for sick family members and elders.

Affordable, quality child care allows women to lead full and productive lives, which is why my organization, Radical Women, is committed to gaining it. Mothers who cannot get child care are pushed out of the workforce, required to stay at home with no hope for economic independence and no escape from violent situations.

Child care is also a class issue. More than 60% of working-class and poor women work outside the home. They struggled to pay for child care even before the COVID-19 crisis blew up the economy. Ninety-seven percent of child-care workers are women, many of them people of color and immigrants. Their incredibly low wages illustrate the continued devaluing of “women’s work.”

But hope is not lost. This crisis presents the opportunity for a better scenario.

The ultimate solution that’s needed now and going forward is a system of publicly funded, free, 24/7 child care available to all families. Washington State must overhaul its regressive revenue structure to tax the rich and corporations to pay for it. Large employers should provide child care on site. Enacting a state-wide policy of 30 hours work for 40 hours pay would also lighten the load of working parents and child-care providers.

In the current statewide emergency, child-care programs must be significantly expanded and opened to all workers and children of all ages with fully funded food and support services. No more piecemeal measures with different requirements. Laid-off child-care providers should be hired as unionized public employees to staff programs.

Child-care workers are at great risk of infection and need the best safety precautions using the latest scientific practices and recommendations from the workers themselves. This includes plenty of cleaning supplies and protective equipment.

Extra funding should be offered to small child-care businesses struggling to stay open. Families who are providing free child care in their homes should receive state compensation for each child now and permanently.

The failing Washington State child-care system can be fixed and this is just a start. It is critical for the future of children, families and workers.

Gina Petry is a social Worker, Radical Women organizer, and former employee of Child Care Resources, coordinator of the Sisters Organize for Survival childcare campaign.