In Conversation: Four Moms on the Consequences of Not Having Child Care for Nontraditional Work Schedules In Conversation: Four Moms on the Consequences of Not Having Child Care for Nontraditional Work Schedules

November 15, 2022

There is an economic and equity imperative to begin to understand the need for child care during nonstandard work hours and the effects of the absence of formal care during these hours on parents of young children who need child care to work.

Invested In Conversation brings us together with those seeing firsthand how community issues are playing out on the ground. In this series, our guests speak from their own experience, lift up their communities’ grassroots solutions, and share their ideas for building and bolstering a more equitable and resilient region.

Sarah Savage is a senior policy analyst and advisor in Regional and Community Outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

In the United States, a mostly private child-care market constrains providers from offering care that is at once high quality, affordable, and available when, where, and for whom parents need it.1 We explore these shortcomings and the trade-offs many working parents have to make in a recent Boston Fed study that surveyed 67 working mothers of young children in Massachusetts.2 For this Invested In Conversation, we invited four parents of young children to share their experiences with a specific challenge raised in the study: child care for parents with nontraditional work schedules. This is of particular concern as we confront inflation-inducing labor shortages concentrated in industries that tend to include occupations with some degree of nonstandard work schedules, such as manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and education and health services.3 Consequently, figuring out how to better support parents with nonstandard work schedules is an economic imperative.

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Formal child care is difficult to access even for parents working traditional nine-to-five schedules.4 High-quality care is limited, and care of variable quality may range in price, with no guarantee that lower-quality care is affordable. The average cost of center-based care exceeds affordability thresholds in all U.S. states.5 Parents working nontraditional schedules who need child care face an additional access obstacle: formal options outside of traditional work hours are extremely limited.6 Unlike formal care that exists during the standard workday but can still be difficult to access, care during nonstandard hours is most often less about affordability or quality constraints and more about lack of supply. With low-income parents and parents of color disproportionately working jobs with nontraditional or variable schedules, this gap in care has equity implications with concerning consequences about access to quality care and the ability to be economically active.7

To begin to understand how parents navigate this overlooked dimension of child care, we asked four working mothers of young children about their experiences needing care outside traditional work hours and how they dealt with the supply gap. Their struggles were wide ranging: the stress and guilt of having to constantly burden a family member to be able to work, forgoing opportunities for much-needed supplemental income to help pay down debt, stalling career advancement, and the sheer inability to take a second job to lift the family out of poverty. In the end, what all these mothers share is a lack of access to formal care during the hours they need it.

To remain operational, providers must limit what they can offer to parents, which includes the ability to be more flexible with scheduling. Addressing this gap would require system-level change that our country historically has been unwilling to pursue.8 We recognize the complexity of this problem, and that one size will not fit all. Thinking about this gap from a parent perspective is a necessary starting point, but it is insufficient without considering the roles that regulations, child-care subsidy and labor policies, and employers play, and intentionally engaging actors from each.

By sharing these mothers’ stories, we hope to motivate conversations and bring attention to this gap that disproportionately impacts low-income parents and parents of color, who could be benefiting from the current labor market with the right supports. We also hope to spur research interest in unanswered questions such as, What is the magnitude of parental needs, and what are their preferences for care outside of traditional work hours? How do those vary by work schedule, and how might these differ by a parent’s background, demographics, occupation, and place of residence? Ultimately, workers are bound to employers’ schedules. Answering these questions will inform employers and policymakers as they grapple with this persistent gap in the child-care market.
For more on this topic, listen to a Q&A with author Sarah Savage on the Boston Fed’s Six Hundred Atlantic podcast.

Footnotes Footnotes

  1. Savage, S. (2019). High-quality early child care: a critical piece of the workforce infrastructure. 
  2. Savage, S. & W. Robeson. (2022). Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers.
  3. Ferguson, S. (2022). Understanding America’s labor shortage: the most impacted industries. U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  4. Savage, S. (2019).
  5. Child Care Aware of America. Child care access and affordability.
  6. Dobbins, D., Lange, K., Gardey, C., Bump, J., & J. Stewart. (2019). It’s about time! Parents who work nonstandard hours face child care challenges.
  7. Adams, G., Willenborg, P., Lou, C. & D. Schilder. (2021). To make the child care system more equitable, expand options for parents working nontraditional hours.
  8. Cohen, A. (1996, summer/fall). A brief history of federal financing for child care in the United States. The Future of Children, 6(2).

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston or the Federal Reserve System. Information about organizations, programs, and events is strictly informational and not an endorsement.

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