It’s hard enough to find child care in this country that is dependable and affordable when working a regular 9 to 5 job. More than 80 percent of American counties are child care deserts where it’s nearly impossible to find a slot, while prices are unaffordable across most of the country.
But what about parents who work shifts outside of daytime hours or on the weekends? There are barely any feasible options for them, and the lack of accessible care often pushes them to cut back at work or give up on better paying jobs.
Ashley (whose name was changed to protect her identity) lives with her three children in Austin, Texas and works at a factory that makes car parts. Her job requires her to start early in the morning and sometimes on the weekends. When she works weekends, she has to ask family members to let her children stay with them, but she can’t set up a reliable arrangement because her hours continually change, so she often has to ask several people before she can find someone who can do it. She drives as much as 40 minutes one way to get her children to a trustworthy family member who’s available, and if they’re late she gets docked attendance points—if she gets too many points she could be disciplined or even fired.
She’s been able to get early morning care on weekdays at the child care center she trusts. But she would love to get promoted to a supervisor position at work, which would mean getting to work even earlier in the morning, earlier than her center opens. The inability to find reliable, trustworthy care outside of traditional working hours has kept her from advancing her career and making more money for her family.
“I wish there were day cares that opened earlier, because I can’t move up in the company, like become a lead or a supervisor or anything,” she said. “I would have to be at work at 6:00 [a.m.]. The earliest the day care opens is 6:00 a.m.”
Ashley’s story is included in a new report from the Urban Institute looking at families’ need for child care during nontraditional hours in Travis County, where Austin is located. The researchers found that in Austin about a third of children under the age of six live in a household where all the parents work nontraditional hours—between 6pm and 7am on weekdays or anytime on the weekends—which comes to 18,000 children. It affects vulnerable groups the most. Almost half of Black children and 42 percent of Hispanic children live in such families. About two-thirds of these families live below the federal poverty line, and nearly three-quarters of parents working these jobs are immigrants.
Despite the high need for care during nontraditional hours, only 62 child care providers in Austin, or about 4 percent of the total, including both centers and in-home providers, have a license to operate outside of normal hours. That means there are a mere 2,000 spots at these times, far less than the number of children whose parents need this care. “There’s a substantial gap between this need and regulated supply,” said Diane Schilder, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who co-wrote the research.
And just because a provider has a license to operate outside of traditional hours, that doesn’t mean they offer the care that these families need. Only two providers in the county provide overnight care, and just 15 offer it on weekends. Even those who have extended hours during the week don’t typically do it for long: most offer just an extra hour in the morning, and only a few offer an extra hour in the evening. “Just because they’re licensed to operate during that time doesn’t mean that they do,” Schilder said.
The findings in Austin are for one city, but Urban Institute researchers have looked at other places across the country and came up with similar findings. “Overall the patterns are very similar,” Schilder said. When Urban Institute researchers focused on Connecticut, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., they found that about a third of children under the age of six lived in a family where all adults were working outside of traditional work hours. Parents in these places primarily relied on family and friends to watch their children during early or late hours or on weekends despite often using a more formal setting during weekdays.
Nationally, Urban Institute researchers found that 40 percent of children under the age of 6 were in some kind of nonparental care during nontraditional hours, including nearly half of Black children and about half of those living in families with income below the poverty level. These kids were more likely to be cared for by family or friends and less likely to be in a center. Only about a third of in-home child care providers and a mere 8 percent of child care centers across the country are open during these outside hours.
When parents can’t get licensed care when they work afterhours or on weekends, “often they are making informal arrangements with family members and friends,” Schilder said. Many “develop a patchwork of care,” noted Dawn Dow, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute and co-author of the Austin research. That may work out for some, but asking family to care for a child can place a burden on them, making it harder for those relatives to pursue their own economic opportunities.
Some parents simply can’t swing it and have to give up on work that they need. The researchers “spoke with a number of parents who described changing their work hours and constraining their economic opportunities because of a lack of care,” Schilder said.
“There are parents who are foregoing opportunities for more lucrative jobs,” Dow said. A parent might be interested in becoming an emergency room nurse, for example, which would pay better than, say, a retail job. But the hours are unpredictable and often don’t line up with typical child care hours, so she may decide against the switch.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m choosing between my kid and my career,” one parent told them. “I don’t really want to work as a school nurse, but it’s one of the only things that works with my daughter’s schedule.”
It’s certainly not easy to offer this kind of care. Child care providers are currently experiencing an acute staffing shortage, and it’s an even harder sell to get people to work early, late or on weekends. “It’s a very physical job picking up young children and caring for all of their needs,” Schilder said. Doing it for even longer hours, especially if a provider is all alone, can feel impossible.
If a provider is caring for children who receive subsidies during nontraditional hours, those subsidies are so low that the provider might only get a couple of extra dollars for being open early or late, which “can be prohibitive,” Schilder said, especially if there are only one or two children but a provider still has to pay a full-time employee to watch them.
Meanwhile, many parents who work these odd hours also don’t tend to have consistent schedules and therefore a consistent need for this kind of care. They may not even get their schedules until a few weeks or even days in advance. Almost 60 percent of hourly service sector workers have variable work schedules, and 60 percent receive their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice. “Their need is intermittent,” Dow said. They may just need help covering a night or weekend shift once every few weeks. “Which means the provider doesn’t always consistently have the same number of children,” she said, “which makes it financially not feasible for them.”
There are regulatory challenges, too. Some providers told Schilder and Dow that if a licensing inspector came at a nontraditional hour but there were no children needing that care that day, the provider was told to cut back on those hours. “It became a negative cycle,” Schilder said.
There are some potential solutions. States and the federal government could provide higher subsidy reimbursement rates for nontraditional hours so that they actually cover the cost of providing this care. Austin is piloting a shared services alliance, which allows in-home child care providers to share information and resources, and it could include information on who can offer afterhours care so that parents have more of a network to fall back on. Fair scheduling mandates, meanwhile, such as those in place in Oregon state as well as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other cities, would ensure that parents have enough of a heads up that they’re able to secure care for any morning, night, or weekend shifts.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.