More than ever, families need child care beyond typical work hours, yet little has been done to address the significant shortage of safe, nurturing, and healthy environments for children during overnight and weekend hours. We call on policy leaders to have a real conversation about non-traditional child care in the coming year.
For millions of working American families, access to quality child care is a deeply felt struggle. For families with job hours outside a typical workweek, the challenge to access stable care is even greater. The unfortunate reality is the crisis of non-traditional child care is neglected to the point that only when tragedy strikes—such as the devastating 2019 fire in Erie, PA, that killed five children—are actionable steps considered by policymakers. It is time for a real conversation on what is needed to support quality non-traditional child care.
The scant national research on non-traditional child care suggests that child care outside of typical 9-to-5 work hours is scarcely available, and when found, is often low-quality and sometimes illegal. Families often rely on a patchwork of care, sometimes denying children the option to participate in more stable, continuous early learning programs that benefit children the most.
Currently, an estimated one in five American workers has a work schedule on weekends or from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays, with a majority of these positions in low-wage jobs. Jobs like these are only projected to increase exponentially. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts home health aides and personal care aides—which have high shares of nonstandard schedules and modest average wages—among the top four growing occupations, with explosive growth over the next decade.
Middle income families need reliable child care options in off-hours, too. Supplementary gig economy opportunities are being increasingly used to fill household income gaps. In 2019, independent contractors with a full-time job rose to 15 million, up more than 40% from 10 million since 2016. Higher wage healthcare occupations with non-traditional hours, such as physician’s assistants, are targeted for big growth in the coming years as well.
A report from Pennsylvania, Making it Work: Examining the Status of Non-Traditional Child Care in Pennsylvania, broke new ground by setting a template to examine the multi-dimensional intersection of non-traditional work and child care. Researchers found that when it comes to non-traditional child care, an acute shortage impacts low and middle incomes families in equal measure, with only one non-traditional child care slot available for every three families.
Even with demand, child care providers operating in non-traditional hours are challenged to find well-trained staff. State child care regulations, focused on creating a foundation for quality in daytime operating hours, provide little guidance on what quality care looks like outside a learning day.
The report also notes an adverse impact on employers. In a hot economy, some struggle to recruit and retain employees due to a lack of stable and flexible care. Workplace policies that inadvertently upend family needs, such as unpredictable or varying work schedules, compound the problem.
Leaders at all levels are beginning to address the need for non-traditional child care. An increase of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant prioritized non-traditional hour care in the law’s language. Some states used the increase to create specific rates for non-traditional child care, and others focused on the sector through the federal Preschool Development Grant Birth to Five.
Municipalities such as Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York, tackled the issue from an employment lens, instituting workweek laws that allow families to know their work schedule in advance, citing child care planning as one of the reasons the ordinances are needed.
The Pennsylvania report takes a good first step of examining the need for non-traditional child care and creating a framework to include myriad policies in the discussion. Conversations on the role of child care in non-traditional hours with diverse stakeholders can elevate policy and regulatory change needed to accommodate this growing economic sector. The current full-employment economy creates a perfect condition to confront the issue of where and how children are cared for when families work in non-traditional hour positions.
Thoughtful, concerted efforts among policymakers, researchers, philanthropists, and business leaders are necessary to uplift a conversation on non-traditional child care and family-supportive workplace policies nationally. Without an avenue to raise the topic, families with unusual work hours are increasingly vulnerable, even in a thriving economy. It is time to move this issue to the forefront of the nation’s child care and labor conversations.