Child Care Crisis: How Unions Can Support Working Parents Right Now
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Millions of working parents rely on daycare programs and schools for child care so they can go to work and provide for their families.
Finding child care has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for working parents during the pandemic as daycares and schools close. And without that help, many parents have had to make difficult choices between earning money to provide for their families and staying home to care for their children, writes Sierra Campbell, special assistant to the Policy Team at the Children’s Defense Fund.
Compounding the problem is the lack of help from employers and legislators while frustrated working parents seek out solutions to the problem.
That’s where unions come in. Unions can help deliver the support working parents desperately need to ensure their children are cared for and their jobs are secure.
The Child Care Crisis Was Exacerbated, Not Created, By COVID-19
A lack of child care options isn’t a new issue for the majority of working parents. Polling conducted by the Center for American Progress in 2018 revealed that 83 percent of parents with a child younger than 5 struggled to find “quality, affordable child care” in their area. The crisis has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Childcare was already hard to find before the pandemic,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a speech at the Early Childhood Education Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. “And now, parents are stuck—no idea when schools can safely reopen and even fewer childcare options.”
The impacts to workers and their families have been devastating. According to a 2020 Econofact survey, about one in eight working parents reported they had lost a job or had their hours cut because of a lack of child care. This loss of income is why child care is so vital to working parents.
“Child care is a necessity for working families,” Simon Workman and Steven Jessen-Howard write at the Center for American Progress. “This was true long before the pandemic but has become even more clear as families juggle the demands of work while dealing with school and child care closures.”
While few real, comprehensive solutions are being offered to help these struggling providers, unions and their allies are positioned to help workers secure benefits that would create solutions to the problem.
Secure Financial Child Care Assistance for Workers
One of the biggest hurdles parents are facing, aside from lack of access due to closures, is the affordability of child care. Trying to balance income and child care costs has pushed working parents into a vicious cycle.
They can’t go to work because they don’t have access to child care, so they don’t earn as much and their jobs are put at risk. Or, when they can work, they aren’t earning enough to be able to afford child care because schools are closed, hours are reduced, and they don’t make enough to pay for that service. This then leads to the issue of not being able to go to work.
They need financial assistance to break free of this cycle. Unions have the opportunity to secure that funding through special agreements (e.g. memoranda of understanding) or by negotiating new contracts.
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU), a collective of various employee unions at Kaiser Permanente, was able to do just that at the start of the pandemic. CKPU secured the largest agreement of the nature at the time, reports the SEIU-UHW. In that agreement, workers received up to $300 a week for child care, but not less than $210, depending on hours worked per week.
Then, in December 2020, the CKPU negotiated a Heroes Bonus for workers that included a child care grant of $200 per week for employees who work more than 32 hours a week. Those benefits are set to continue until April 3, 2021.
“We fought hard for the bonus and extended benefits to make sure our dedication to our patients is recognized,” said Carlene Gonzalez, a licensed practical nurse at Kaiser Tysons Corner Medical Center in Virginia and a member of Local 2 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).
“… It will help ease some of the strain Kaiser employees and our families have been under and will continue to be under for the foreseeable future.”
Fight for Flexible Work Schedules
Employers need to be more understanding and flexible with work schedules so parents can better juggle work and child care. This is an important benefit that union leaders can work to secure with employers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 21, 367, and 1439, as well as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters) Local 38, were able to negotiate an agreement for members working at Fred Meyer/QFC that included more flexibility in scheduling to accommodate child care needed.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also negotiated an agreement with telecommunications companies that gave workers additional time off to stay home with children if schools and daycares were closed.
“The benefits and protections of union membership are more vital than ever during a time of so much fear,” IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson said.
Negotiate for Adequate Paid Leave
Adequate paid leave has been a coveted luxury for workers during the pandemic. Many have been forced to use up their annual paid leave and then take unpaid leave to care for their children while schools and daycares have been closed.
While the Families First Coronavirus Response (FFCRA) Act and the first Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act did provide this benefit to some workers, neither was universal. Unions still need to step in and ensure their members get adequate paid leave to care for their children when they don’t have access to child care.
A good example to follow is the Communications Workers of America’s (CWA) and IBEW’s agreement with Verizon that addressed paid leave for a number of reasons, including child care. In that agreement, members who couldn’t work because of child care issues gained the benefit of paid leave of up to eight weeks at the regular hourly rate and up to 18 additional weeks at 60 percent of their pay.
Lobby for Legislation That Provides Child Care Benefits
While individual wins for locals is important, it would help more workers to get federal legislation passed that addressed child care for workers.
Though the child care crisis has gotten worse throughout the pandemic, policymakers have not dedicated much energy and attention to solving the problem, writes Anna North, senior reporter at Vox. It’s long past time for that to change, and unions have the resources and the strength to lead the charge.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) Act is one piece of legislation that unions are rallying behind. This legislation includes paid sick and medical leave as well as child care support to help working families, notes the Labor Network for Sustainability.
The House of Representatives passed an updated version of the bill in October 2020, which may stand a chance of passing in a more labor-friendly, Democratic-majority Senate and being signed by President Joe Biden.
Working parents were struggling to find adequate child care before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the crisis. Without much support from employers and government leaders, these workers are growing increasingly frustrated with the problem and anxious about a future that offers few solutions.
Unions have the power and the resources to help. As leaders continue to collaborate with their members and other unions, a tool like UnionTrack ENGAGE can facilitate communication and engagement in these efforts.
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