Daycare nearby is hard to find as child care centers can’t fill jobs

School looks different for kids and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Kindergarteners and their parents explain what school is like a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.


Like millions of women across the country, Shekira Bradwell found herself in a no-win situation last year.

The Philadelphia-area mother realized she could either return to work and pay for a babysitter or abandon that job and care for her child, whose school had reverted to distance learning. Bradwell’s daughter, 8, has special needs. The care her child required wasn’t just expensive, it was all but impossible to find. 

Bradwell had little choice but to take family leave, a benefit that expired before her daughter’s in-person schooling resumed. By the end of the year, the 44-year-old with a master’s degree found herself unemployed. 

Shekira Bradwell left her job at a child care center so she could homeschool her daughter (pictured right), who has special needs.
Shekira Bradwell left her job at a child care center so she could homeschool her daughter (pictured right), who has special needs.
Shekira Bradwell left her job at a child care center so she could homeschool her daughter (pictured right), who has special needs.

Bradwell is desperate to get back on track professionally, but she’s wary of returning to the same job she held before COVID-19 working in a child care center. The irony is the industry’s low pay and rigorous time demands make it difficult for its workforce to meet their own child care needs.

Close to 3 million women left the U.S. labor force during the pandemic. And that trend is reflected in the 94% female child care industry, where a little more than half of the workers are mothers. According to some estimates, child care lost 1 in 6 of its jobs while COVID-19 raged. 

Why child care remains one of the biggest costs for American families

Here’s why the U.S. child care system is so expensive and why it’s difficult to change.

Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

Many of them may never return to those jobs, in some cases because they’ve been lured to higher-paying – if less gratifying – work elsewhere. Experts told USA TODAY of former child care providers who now work at Starbucks or McDonald’s because now they at least have health insurance. (Child care centers, which are often strapped for cash themselves, are seldom able to provide such perks.) Some workers also decided to go on unemployment, the checks more lucrative than their paystubs. 

Just half of the child care workers who left early on in the pandemic have returned, said Myra Jones-Taylor, the chief policy officer at the nonprofit Zero to Three, in a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing. 

“We’re in a staffing crisis in this industry,” said Leslie Spina, the executive director of an early-childhood education provider in Philadelphia. “Workforce development is really in an ugly place right now.”

And that’s a problem for the U.S. economy. Nearly 1 in 4 parents is either not working or is working less than before the pandemic, thanks to disruptions in child care and in-person school, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve. Child care shortages continue to plague parts of the country.

For America to get back to work, it needs to solve those shortages. 

Turnover was a problem before the pandemic

The hemorrhaging comes as no surprise given the hard realities of working in this industry. Child care workers earned a median hourly wage of just $11.65 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, child care workers’ low wages mean close to 2 in 5 of them live below 200% of the federal poverty level, which this year comes out to an annual salary of less than $25,760 for a single person. Thirty percent of child care workers qualify for some sort of employment assistance, said Nonie Lesaux, a Harvard professor who co-directs the school’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

Day care employees also often lack benefits, and their work is intense, both physically and emotionally. Scheduled breaks are rare; many workers can’t even use the bathroom at will.

“There are some vicious cycles happening,” Lesaux said. “If I’m stressed about money, I’m going to be stressed with the kids. And it just makes the job harder.”

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