With Limited Child Care Options, Kentucky Parents Face Tough Choices
Time was running out for Bath County mom Tabitha Porter. After more than two months on furlough from her job as a pharmacy technician at Fleming County Hospital, she got the call to return to work. But to come back, she needed child care for her seven-year-old foster daughter, who has special needs. Porter is a single mom, and she doesn't have family nearby who can help out.
When she got the call to report to work, Porter knew the child care centers in her rural area were still closed -- she had been trying for weeks to find an opening. But she made calls and sent a flurry of Facebook messages anyway. Still, no luck.
"Fleming County does not have child care open, and do not plan to reopen," she said. "Bath County, which is the county I live in -- they have no child care open."
She even called a center in Bourbon County, a 45-minute drive from her home. But the center was operating under the state's reduced capacity requirements that experts say help protect against the spread of coronavirus, and they didn’t have room for her.
She told her employer the situation. But they gave her an ultimatum: "figure it out within the next 10 days, or we'll have to let you go."
"So I’m going to end up losing my job this Wednesday because I have no child care," Porter said, speaking to WFPL News two days before her deadline to return to work.
Porter is not the only Kentucky parent facing an impossible situation because of a lack of child care.
In rural Breckinridge County, single mom Alannah Allen was thankful that amid all the economic chaos of the pandemic, she had been able to keep her job at the McDonald's in Brandenburg, Ky. Allen has two boys, aged 4 and 5. Newly promoted to manager, she had just received a small raise to $10 an hour. It allowed her to get more credit -- enough to trade in her old car for a newer one with better gas mileage.
But keeping her job hasn't come without sacrifice.
Child care centers in Allen's area have been closed since March, and didn't reopen in June. To stay employed, Allen’s only option was to drive her boys an hour away across the river to Indiana to stay with her mother and grandmother. Because Allen couldn't afford the gas to drive back and forth each day, she had to leave them there for five or six days at a time, and pick them up on her days off.
"It’s very difficult for everyone," Allen said.
Child care centers were allowed to open in Kentucky on June 15, after being closed since March to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. But because of a variety of factors, many centers still haven’t reopened. And many that have opened are operating under reduced capacity to meet new health guidelines meant to protect against the virus. That's leaving many parents, especially moms, without options to come back to work.
Experts warn that some child care closures could be permanent, and because caregiving often falls to mothers, that could have a long-term impact on women's participation in the workforce.
A Day Care Owner Tries For Weeks To Reopen
Allen’s child care center is ABC Daycare in Irvington, Ky. Owner Rebecca Brown said the pandemic has created major financial pressure and left her struggling to reopen. Brown's center, which serves 36 children, closed on Mar. 20, under an executive order from Gov. Andy Beshear meant to protect against the spread of coronavirus.
"I literally cried for a whole week," Brown said.
Brown got a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan to keep paying her five staff members during the closures, but she lost half of them anyway. One took a job as a janitor with better job security, she said. Another decided to retire. A third was too stressed to come back. She had to restaff. But that took weeks, and delayed her plans to reopen in June. The delay hit the Allen family hard.
"When my youngest found out that he had to go back to my grandma's, he just started bawling," Allen said. "He really just wants to stay home."
Brown said she’s also out thousands of dollars spent on trying to meet the state's new health guidelines. She got $3,000 in federal coronavirus relief funding to help. Congress set aside $3.5 billion in the CARES Act to help child care centers stay open during the pandemic. But Brown said what she received didn't cover all the expenses. She spent about $1,000 on an app and software to check kids in and assist with contact tracing. She spent another $1,000 to build a wall to create an extra classroom; this will allow her to comply with a state requirement to keep children in smaller groups. Experts say keeping children in groups of 10 or fewer is important for reducing the spread of COVID-19. That rule is currently blocked, and being debated in the state court system. But Brown said the money’s already spent.
"So I have a $1,000 wall that I didn’t have to build," she said.
And there’s future financial uncertainty. Parents’ jobs and lives are limbo, and they don't know when they'll send their kids back.
"Some don’t know if they are, if they aren’t, what their schedule’s gonna be. It’s just been trying. It’s trying," Brown said.
With Child Care Industry in 'Dire Straits' So Are Workplace Gains For Women
ABC Daycare is one of thousands of child care centers facing serious financial pressure as a result of the pandemic. Analysis by the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) finds the pandemic has put roughly half the nation's child care capacity at risk of disappearing.
"We are really facing dire, dire straits right now in the child care industry," CAP Vice President of Early Childhood Policy Katie Hamm said.
Hamm said child care centers already operate on slim margins, and can't survive a long-term closure or operate at reduced capacity. A March survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found 30% of child care providers said they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant public investment.
Child care center closures disproportionately impact women, and specifically women of color, who are more likely to own child care centers or be employed by them, Hamm said.
Then there's the impact on the families and communities that need child care. Many families had trouble finding child care before the pandemic — especially low-income communities, rural communities and communities of color, Hamm said. Now, those problems are amplified by the closures.
"It makes it harder for them to bounce back in a way that perhaps neighborhoods that do have adequate child care can," she said.
And it’s an issue that disproportionately impacts women, who are much more likely than men to have a career disruption due to a child care issue.
For these reasons, Hamm said the pandemic child care closures could have an enormous impact on gains women have made in the workplace.
"I think we could see a huge decline in maternal labor force that would take us back several decades," she said.
To prevent that from happening, Hamm said Congress needs to set aside much more funding for child care centers in the next coronavirus relief package.
The $3.5 billion was "a drop in the bucket," Hamm said, compared to the real need, which CAP estimates is around $50 billion.
For comparison, the airline industry received $25 billion in relief funding in the first CARES Act package.
Still In Limbo
On the last day day pharmacy tech Tabitha Porter had to find child care, Porter called the hospital to tell them the news: she still couldn't find anything less than an hour away. A YMCA about an hour from her house had an opening for essential workers, but Porter makes just $10 an hour, and couldn't afford to make the trip each day.
"They asked me what I planned on doing," she said. "And told them that until the day cares open or schools open, there’s nothing I can do."
Porter said the hospital still hasn’t made a final decision. But she’s terrified of losing her job, and what that will mean for her ability to provide for her daughter. She's reached out to everyone she can think of, even the governor's office, who sent WFPL News the following statement in response.
Reached for comment, Fleming County Hospital spokeswoman Katelyn Bailey said Porter was still an employee and they couldn't comment on personnel matters. But she did send a written statement.
"We are deeply committed to supporting our team members through the pandemic, and recognize the myriad of challenges it has created for all of our employees," the statement reads, noting that the hospital has "worked to initiate and extend resources" to help with child care and elder care.
A few days after that phone call, Porter said the state asked her to care for a second foster child who needed immediate temporary placement. Porter agreed. Now she's receiving $4,500 a month in state payments for being a foster parent to two, and she's less anxious about making ends meet. But she still doesn't want to lose her job.
Meanwhile, in Breckinridge County, ABC Daycare finally opened on Monday. That means Alannah Allen and her two boys are together again, seven days a week.