Article Thumbnail

America Has a Child Care Crisis. Will COVID Finally Be Our Wake-Up Call?

America’s lack of subsidized child care was already an embarrassment. During the pandemic, when essential workers are dragging their kids along on risky jobs, it’s a full-blown disaster

Last Thursday, I watched a man in the latter half of middle age, wearing a white surgical mask, deliver groceries to my upstairs neighbor, sweat beading his wrinkled forehead. He was noticeably tired. Trailing behind him, carrying two bags of groceries, one under each arm, was his not-yet-old-enough-to-be-left-at-home-alone son. Together, the masked essential worker and his unmasked son climbed the flight of stairs, dad first, delivered the bags and returned to their car. A few minutes later, the man’s son reappeared, this time running up the stairs, to deliver the rest of the groceries ordered via Amazon Fresh.

In a vacuum, or perhaps even outside the context of our COVID reality, this scene might have been framed less tragically. Here was a not-yet adolescent boy, literally doing the heavy lifting so that dad didn’t have to. Maybe he had the day off from school; maybe accompanying dad to work was part of his education. In other words, here, simply, was a son who’d gone to work that day with his dad. 

But the reality is that, across the country, schools are closed. In California, of the state’s estimated 5.1 million essential workers, about 1.9 million have children younger than 13. “About 400,000 children in essential worker families live on incomes below 85 percent of the state median — the income cutoff for state preschool in normal times,” reports the Public Policy Institute of California

Parents with no other options were bringing their kids to work before now, of course. In August 2017, well before the pandemic, a person asked the Instacart forum on whether it was okay to bring “your child(ren) with you when you go shopping and delivering?” And the most recent response indicates that there are people deemed “essential workers,” making their living as part of the gig economy, who are currently doing their essential jobs with their kids alongside them. “Instacart shoppers come in where I work all the time and bring friends, family including children,” one person wrote in April. 

According to an Amazon Flex representative (the company’s ride-share division), while “it may not be a good idea to bring children with you as some pickups and deliveries may take you away from your vehicle for long periods of time, as an independent contractor, you can use your discretion on having passengers in the vehicle.” “Passengers are subject to the passenger policy and children cannot interact with customers and may not accompany you when you deliver packages,” the Amazon representative continues over email. “In case of an accident, Amazon’s commercial insurance will not cover any passengers in your vehicle.”

Somewhat contradictory, however, in the past, the ability to deliver food and/or packages was one of the touted benefits of working as an Amazon Flex, DoorDash or any other food/package delivery service. “The pitch for working the Amazon Flex job is simple: You have ultimate job flexibility because you pick your own hours and days based on when Amazon has available ‘blocks’ or hours available,” reported in 2018. “And because you’re delivering a set amount of packages over the four-hour block, there’s nothing to stop you from having passengers along for the ride, even if those passengers look a lot like you and use a sippy cup.” 

In other words, before COVID, one of the supposed perks of these gig economy jobs was such that you could make money while not having to worry about child-care costs, which can be over $10,000 a year.

But obviously, this isn’t 2018. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “every state that issued stay-at-home orders to fight the spread of COVID-19 has some provision for providing child care to essential workers, although the type of assistance varies greatly.” “Some states opened their own temporary facilities in schools and recreation centers, while others offered special licenses to established child-care providers,” per their report. “Some cover the entire cost of care, while others provide subsidies or pay for provisions such as the additional cleaning supplies required under new rules.”

In that sense, it’s hard to imagine why anyone driving for one of the companies offering food delivery wouldn’t take advantage of the state-subsidized child-care services offered to all essential workers. Unless, of course, said “emergency child-care services” offered by nearly every state across the country aren’t nearly as available as their respective governors would like you to believe. “Some states — including Washington, California and New York, which currently have the biggest outbreaks in the U.S. — are providing free or subsidized child care to essential workers,” reports Vox. “Others have allowed existing child-care facilities to remain open, but many providers have had to shut down nonetheless due to decreased overall demand, limiting the options available to health-care workers who need their services most.” 

And if the options available to health-care workers are limited, one can assume that the options available to an Amazon Flex worker are pretty much nonexistent.

To that end, according to, though initially, child-care providers had remained open during the pandemic to serve children of essential workers, “without being able to serve other families, 7,644 child-care providers — about 1 in 5 in [California] — had suspended operations by May 1st because of the shelter-in-place orders,” per their report. Which is to say that, although several states have made efforts to aid essential workers with their child-care needs, the nature of the situation has taken many of these options off of the table. 

The other potential communication breakdown for essential workers desperate for child care is the lack of uniformity across the country, with regard to who’s deemed an essential worker — and eligible for state-subsidized child care — and who isn’t. “Each state has its own definition for what constitutes an ‘essential’ worker, and Guidepost [a network of about 50 Montessori schools with locations across the U.S. and a few overseas] uses that definition to determine whose children are permitted to attend its child-care centers,” reports

Not to mention that those food delivery drivers, while “essential,” aren’t necessarily considered the most essential. “And then within that, [Ray] Girn [CEO of Higher Ground Education and founder of Guidepost Montessori] says, the organization prioritizes the families of nurses, doctors, emergency medical staff and first responders before those working in industries such as food and agriculture, engineering, IT and military.”

Fundamentally, this entire issue reveals yet another textural flaw in the American fabric that undervalues the necessity of federally subsidized child care. Because even before the pandemic, the U.S. remains the only developed country that doesn’t offer universal child care. Sure, in this crisis, many states have made efforts to help those families most in need by offering state-subsidized child-care services. But asking folks to suddenly rely on services that largely didn’t exist before the world caught on fire isn’t likely to assuage their fears around leaving their kids in a place and with people they’re unfamiliar with. 

Hopefully, then, the silver lining, if there is one, is that such “emergency services” provided by the state during these desperate times will continue to operate in a post-pandemic world. Meaning, in these “unprecedented times,” certain precedents will be set that strategically changes the way the American system takes care of its most vulnerable citizens. Otherwise, the man and his son from beyond my window, delivering food to the doorsteps of those who can afford to have their food delivered to them, will continue to be perpetually and essentially at risk.