MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Who are the people who care for the children of essential workers - workers such as health care providers, grocery store employees and many others working through this pandemic? For a lot of them, it's the people running child care centers throughout the country.
SYLVIA HERNANDEZ: We do have a big responsibility. I mean, children who are not your children - you know, it's a life that we have in our hands.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That is Sylvia Hernandez. She runs a 24/7 child care facility in Van Nuys, Calif. And fulfilling that responsibility, like so much else in this pandemic, has become a lot more difficult. There are the increased safety precautions, like trying to keep kids socially distant, that makes providing care more complicated. And there are the financial worries. That's the case for Jamila Wilson, a home-based day care owner in Chicago.
JAMILA WILSON: I am terrified, to say the least. The state of Illinois child care system was already in a bad predicament. And then COVID hit, so now we're in a deeper place than what we started off with because we're concerned that they're not going to be able to continue to pay us.
KELLY: And all this, says Luc Jasmin, is weighing on his employees at a child care center in Spokane, Wash.
LUC JASMIN: Typically, what do people have when they're struggling mentally? It's family. It's friends. It's their community. And my employees and I don't have that right now.
CHANG: Here to talk about the toll the pandemic is having on child care centers across the country is Bryce Covert. She's been writing about this for The Nation.
BRYCE COVERT: Thank you for having me on.
CHANG: OK. We've just heard some really big concerns from child care providers around the country. I know that you've spoken to even more providers. What concerns stand out for you as you've been talking to them?
COVERT: They're really trying to weigh the balance between safety of themselves, of the children, of the people who come to work with them against their own financial needs. It's really costly to stay open, and it's also costly to shut. And so they're trying to figure out, you know, can I afford to stay open? I want to serve my community. Can I keep doing that? A lot of them feel a sense of service - or do I need to protect myself and my workers and just close my doors?
CHANG: OK. So a lot of these child care facilities are weighing whether or not to stay open. But for those that are staying open even now, how are you seeing them change things - change the way they operate in order to ensure the safety of the children, the safety of the staff while managing costs?
COVERT: Yeah. They're coming up with really creative solutions. I spoke to one in-home child care provider in New York City who has the children change into a T-shirt every morning, and then they change out of that T-shirt and leave it with her every day in an attempt to stop the spread. And across the board, they're doing things like taking temperatures. They're asking parents not to come in for drop-off, which can lead to more tears; even things like not giving the kids as many hugs, which is very difficult when you're a child care provider.
COVERT: But they are really just sort of making it up as they go along.
CHANG: You say that people who operate child care facilities were already operating on thin margins. Can you first explain why that is?
COVERT: It's sometimes surprising to hear how thin the margins are in child care because parents are usually spending a huge amount of their budget on child care. But it's a business that's hard to find cost efficiencies because all of your expenses are relatively fixed. You need to have a certain number of adults in the room to adequately care for children. You have rent. You have food. You have cleaning supplies. All of those costs are hard to reduce. So it's a high-cost business, and parents can only afford to spend so much. So providers kind of get stuck in the middle not making very much money and not able to pay very high wages.
CHANG: And how much more expensive has it been to operate during this pandemic as someone who operates a child care facility?
COVERT: Yeah, the costs have really gone up. According to the National Women's Law Center and an organization called CLASP, for a child care center, costs are 23% higher. And for an in-home provider, it's 19% higher. And again, if you're starting from really thin margins, you probably don't have financial cushion to dip into for those extra costs, so a lot of them are actually operating in the red right now.
CHANG: I mean, given that child care centers that are still open are struggling mightily and that there are also many centers that have already closed, do you think that all these centers are going to be there and be available when people do eventually go back to work?
COVERT: We will absolutely lose child care centers permanently. It's hard to say right now how many, but we know that half of all providers across the country have already closed. You know, hopefully some of them will be able to reopen, but the financial picture is really, really difficult. And if the ones that are open keep operating in the red and the ones that are closed are constantly losing money, it's impossible to imagine that all of them are going to make it through. And what that means is that when we reopen the economy and people try to go back to work, they're going to find that the wonderful provider who took such great care of their children may just not be there anymore.
CHANG: Bryce Covert is a contributor to The Nation.
Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
COVERT: Thank you so much.
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