It has been almost eight months since the first COVID-19 cases hit the United States and there has been a national shift in how essential workers are viewed. Once heroic headlines—uplifting the workers who kept the country running and fed—are now bleak. Essential workers are being treated as “sacrificial lambs,” New York Magazine recently reported, and thrust “into positions they were never meant to fill.” Essential workers are neither heroes nor martyrs; they are everyday people who have been failed, and they are doing the best they can to stay afloat. Broadly, they come from communities and industries that have historically been underfunded and under-resourced, held together by a patchwork that is now being ripped to shreds by the COVID-19 crisis. This especially true in the child care industry.
As Prism’s Ashton Lattimore recently reported, child care is a critical part of the country’s infrastructure, largely held together by the labor of Black women who comprise a significant portion of early childhood care and education workers. During a recent virtual town hall for child care workers in North Carolina, Black women in the industry reported feeling unsupported, under-resourced, and largely disrespected. The event was co-organized by members of We Dream in Black, a 2016 initiative launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance in North Carolina to organize Black workers in the care sector. This is where Prism met Stephanie Shell, a newly-licensed in-home child care provider based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Like other essential workers who have spoken to Prism—including sanitation workers, poultry plant workers, and housekeepers—Shell explained the many misconceptions surrounding her work, and the way the pandemic has only compounded long standing problems in the industry. Heading into Labor Day, Shell said she wants the public to understand what child care workers like her are up against, the razor thin margins they are operating within, and the challenges of being an essential worker who cares for the children of other essential workers.
Here she is, in her own words:
I’ve always been a pretty small operation that specifically caters to what we now call essential workers. I used to be an essential worker and I needed untraditional child care; I needed someone who could watch my child until 8 PM so that I wouldn’t lose my job. When I opened my day care, that was the service I knew I wanted to provide to other parents. Prior to COVID, I had nine children enrolled and now I barely have three children who are actively attending. Some parents pulled their children out because they knew some of the other children had parents who were essential workers on the frontline, including healthcare workers, and they didn’t want their children being around them and potentially increasing their risk of getting COVID. They asked me, “How are you social distancing the kids?” How do you distance two-year-olds? It’s impossible.
As an in-home child care provider, I’m wearing so many different hats. I’m a director, an administrator who handles paperwork; I’m the children’s caretaker and educator. It can be really daunting, especially when you also consider the new cleaning regime. Of course I maintained quality standards before COVID, but now I spend an excessive amount of time cleaning. I’m always wiping down the door knobs, washing hands, and disinfecting every surface. The children wash their hands every hour. Things are just so much more complicated and hard. I had to get rid of half the children’s toys because they weren’t plastic and couldn’t be properly sanitized. Thankfully I have a large backyard and we can spend time outdoors, but that means I now have to do yard maintenance work on my own on top of doing things like prepping the children’s food. I do everything. This is all very hard to manage without help. I had a helper, but like many women in this field, she was older. She was 65, diabetic, and previously had a heart attack. I couldn’t expect her to come help with the kids if it put her at risk, so I had to turn some families away because I couldn’t enroll more children and properly supervise them without additional help.
There is an emotional burden that weighs heavily on me, and it is exhausting. I’m just so tired and when I think about it, I know it’s because every day that I’m working, I could get sick. I could die. A child could get sick. My own son could get sick. My son has health complications and he can’t go to traditional day care. It’s part of the reason I changed fields. I think about keeping him safe while still doing my occupation. I worry about it all the time.
Everything has changed in how I work, and part of that is because I want to be accommodating to other parents. For example, I have two, two-year-olds that come part time because their mom is an essential worker and she needs to sleep. Before, that’s not something I would have done. Children only enrolled if they were going to be with me for a full-time schedule, but I want to be sensitive to what’s happening. The financial impact of the pandemic has been huge. The state of North Carolina offered some operational grants and bonuses, but all of that has stopped and the bills are piling back up. There are just so many complexities. Parents are not used to paying for child care when their children would usually be in school. They are tapped out and so am I.
It doesn’t help that the price of everything has gone up, and that I can’t always find the supplies that I need. COVID created food shortages and it’s hard to get all the milk I need, especially because I need three different kinds of milk and I need about five gallons to get through the week. It’s not unusual that I have to go to three different stores. My shopping day used to take a couple of hours on Saturday. Now I spend almost half of Saturday chasing the items I need. Earlier in the pandemic it was worse, especially because I needed cleaning supplies to continue operating my business. Remember when you couldn’t find bleach wipes anywhere? Some places still limit how much you can buy, so if I find a place where items are in stock I need to call family members or friends to the store so that they can check out with a few items for me to get what I need to care for the kids. These are just some of the small things, the little complexities that add up and make things more difficult.
This is not unskilled work; it bothers me that there is an assumption that this is unskilled labor and that it doesn’t take skill to work with and care for young children. People assume this is just babysitting. There are great babysitters, but I’m not a babysitter. I’m a child care professional and there is a big difference between watching a child and caring for a child. I have to be licensed and registered and insured; I have to follow state regulations. I spend money each year to keep my certifications and to take classes, go to trainings, and do coursework to continue learning best practices. I just wish people understood how essential child care is. People love their children and want the best for them, but don’t always seem to value what child care providers do. We care for children during the most critical time of their lives—we teach them and feed them and care for them—but we don’t make a livable wage. A parent recently asked me to care for her child for about $100 a week. That would mean I was working for $2 an hour.
As a country we do not invest in child care and every day I see the toll it takes on women. It impacts the whole family—it decreases potential earning income; it decreases career growth opportunities; it demolishes career advancement. Women in the workplace really suffer because of a lack of childcare, and children suffer without this care too. When placed in the right environment from ages zero to three, children flourish and it sets them on a good path.
I think what we’re not talking about is how the pandemic is going to make a bad situation worse. We’re not talking about the long-term cost of the pandemic on child care providers. If you’re an in-home child care provider like me, losing one or two families can end your business. Personally I am a single mom and I tapped into my 401K and savings to stay afloat, but if you don’t have those kinds of resources, you’re not going to make it.
We don’t know how long this [pandemic] will last and so many child care providers don’t have the resources to bridge the gap. People are having to make hard decisions about how much they are willing to liquidate before they call it quits. So many of us barely have enough children enrolled now to make ends meet, what if it gets worse? I know so many women in this field— wonderful women who have made a big difference in children’s lives for almost 30 years—who are leaving the field five or 10 years earlier than they would have because it’s too hard and they are in the high-risk group for COVID. We are losing so many good people because they don’t think they will survive this.