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Child care assistance will be essential for front-line workers in coming months

By Pablo Ros ·
Child care assistance will be essential for front-line workers in coming months
Liz Sabin, a nurse at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, with her family. (Member-provided photo)

Liz Sabin never thought she’d have to rely on her sister to take a sick day from work to care for Sabin’s children, who are 2 and 7 years old. But that’s where she’s at.

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Sabin, a nurse at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, and a member of Oregon AFSCME (Council 75), is still scrambling to find adequate child care. When schools first shut down in the spring, her husband took four months of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Later, Sabin herself was able to take paid leave through the CARES Act, passed in March in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Things might get better in January when her husband begins a new work shift but, having burned through a lot of paid vacation leave and with the prospect of a long, dark winter ahead, it’s unclear just how much longer they can sustain this.

“I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution,” Sabin says. “But employers could do a little bit better job of working with employees to help them cover child care. You can’t leave small children alone. That’s just not an option.”

Sabin is hardly alone among public service workers on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Nurses, first responders and other health care workers, as well as essential workers from behavioral health to sanitation workers, do not have the option of working from home. Parents need child care more than ever, even as many of them have lost wages and face limited child care options.

Child care workers themselves are in no better position. Many of them have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, and the child care programs they run are struggling to stay afloat.

Rachel Lamet, who runs a child care business out of her home in Salem, Oregon, and is also a member of Council 75, says her small business isn’t sustainable anymore.

“I’m not making any money at all, I’m probably losing money,” she says. “I’m in my home and my husband pays the bills, that’s the only reason I’m still up and running.”

Her registered family child care is licensed for a maximum of 10 children. When the pandemic first started, she lost all of the families she was serving. Now, most of them have come back, but the money she has spent all these months on cleaning supplies and additional expenses to meet the new emergency regulations have put her in the red.

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Rachel Lamet runs a child care business out of her home in Salem, Oregon. (Member-provided photo)

“The cost of cleaning supplies skyrocketed,” Lamet recalls. “I paid $100 for a case of Clorox wipes. The cost of food went up. And then I had to purchase additional tables because the kids had to eat a certain number of feet apart. Trying to adjust to those new requirements was tough, and I knew that I would lose clients if I raised my prices. And it wouldn’t be fair. They’re not getting paid more than before. In fact, many of them have lost their jobs.”

Sabin and Lamet see a role for the federal government in all of this, and they agree it needs to act fast.

AFSCME has been calling on the federal government to fund the front lines, including relief for states, cities, towns and schools. Such funding must include assistance to front-line workers like Sabin and Lamet so that essential workers can continue to fight the pandemic.

There is still much to be done before we overcome the worst public health crisis in a century. Even with a vaccine in hand, the work of distributing it will be long and hard. Without adequate child care for essential workers, it will take us longer to get there and cost us unnecessary suffering.

There is a broad consensus about the urgent need for federal assistance. Governors and mayors, public transit systems, scientists, health care professionals, business leaders, economists, small business owners, restaurants and the travel industry all agree that relief is needed on an aggressive scale to beat this pandemic and bring our economy back from the brink.

Voters overwhelmingly agree as well. At a time when public services are being eroded nationwide, not only do 84% of people support federal aid to maintain public services needed to beat the pandemic and safely reopen the economy, but they are more likely to support elected leaders who do so as well. The current relief package under consideration by Congress would be a start, but more needs to be done.

Roughly 1.3 million public service jobs have already been lost since the start of the pandemic. AFSCME will continue to push Congress until our states, cities, towns and schools receive the adequate funding they need to continue to provide essential services to our communities.

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