Bonus Episode: Inside a child-care void: What about parents working “nontraditional” hours?
Runtime: 18:33 — The nation’s child-care sector is in crisis because affordable, high-quality care is so hard to find. But this care is even more scarce for those who don’t work 9-to-5. In a bonus episode, we hear from four moms and get insight from Boston Fed expert Sarah Savage.
Affordable, high-quality child care is tough to find, and it’s even more scarce for those who don’t work typical 9-to-5 days. The plight of parents working these “nontraditional” hours is the focus of the latest Invested, the online magazine of the Boston Fed’s community development arm. It’s also the topic of this bonus episode, which features an interview with child care expert and Boston Fed Senior Policy Analyst Sarah Savage.
Savage defines the problem that workers in nontraditional hours face and weighs its broader costs. And she discusses why we need to get a better grasp on demand for care during these hours.
The episode also includes audio from an Invested animation that features four parents who need care during nontraditional hours. The parents range from a mother of six to a woman forced to live in a shelter with her kids, and they’re all paying a price for this lack of care.
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Hi, my name is Jay Lindsay. I'm one of the hosts of Six Hundred Atlantic. Season 2 of the podcast focuses on the nation's decades-long child-care crisis. Today, I'm with Sarah Savage. She's a senior policy analyst at the Bank, and we have really relied on her expertise during Season 2.
Something else she's been working on lately is an aspect of the crisis that doesn't get a ton of attention. And that is the lack of child care options for people who don't have a traditional 9-to-5 type workday.
Sarah and her team interviewed four women from different walks of life who are dealing with this problem. And the Bank put together these interviews in an animation for Invested. That's the online magazine of our Regional & Community Outreach department.
We're going to play the audio from the animation during this bonus episode. We think it tells a compelling story about what parents who work nontraditional hours really face. But first, we wanted to talk to Sarah. Welcome back to Six Hundred Atlantic, Sarah.
So, Sarah, maybe you start us off by breaking down the problem a little bit. What's at the heart of it?
Sure. So, when we think about care during nontraditional hours, what we're talking about is care that falls outside of a typical 9-to-5 work schedule. This could be early mornings, evenings, overnight, weekends, and at the same time, parents and workers who are more likely to work these nonstandard schedules tend to be, are more likely to be, parents of color or low-income parents.
So, there's limited to no care during these times, which can put parents who are working nonstandard schedules at a particular disadvantage, making it really challenging. Or it could prevent some parents from working when they otherwise might be working during these times.
When we think about what types of occupations are we talking about, there's the health care technician who works overnight. There's retail workers. Think about a worker who is at a clothing shop folding clothes in the evening. There's restaurant workers, bartenders who work evening shifts. So, there are numerous occupations that this could include, and types of workers.
So obviously, it's better for the economy if workers in these kinds of jobs can participate more fully. We don't want them to be constrained by a lack of child care.
Is this becoming a bigger concern, do you think?
Well, I think that with COVID, the need for essential workers and what it meant when essential workers may or may not have child care, what that meant, regardless of when they worked, was more exposed.
Right, and this is sort of a related question here, which is, just from a business standpoint, this is a much smaller pool of people working nontraditional hours. How can a business work to serve that group when it's so much smaller?
I think the challenge can come down to the demand and not knowing what parents need and how they need it during nontraditional hours. If that was certain, then I think providers could maybe be in a better position to set up for it because they could count on the demand, much like they can count on during traditional hours. But because it's sort of uncertain what and when parents need the care and how they might want it, I think that makes it very hard for providers to set up on the supply side.
There might also be some constraints as far as regulations and how long providers can stay open. So that requires a bigger conversation that providers and parents alone can't solve. So, I think it needs to include many actors at the table to try to solve this, but I don't think it just comes down to profitability.
I guess I want to talk now, I guess, about the impact of this. How does it affect workers? How does it affect providers? How does it affect the economy?
We know there's a labor shortage. So, what would that look like if parents had better access to formal care, particularly during nontraditional hours? And especially when we see some of the jobs that face the biggest labor shortages, those are jobs that do tend to offer some nontraditional shifts in more variable scheduling.
So, when you ask, “How does it affect the overall economy?”, I think it plays into the labor shortage that we're seeing.
So, let's talk a little bit about the animation. You said there's not been a ton of systematic research on this, but was one of the purposes of talking to these women to sort of make the impacts real?
If we really want to understand what these families need, let's understand why they're working these schedules, how they arrived at these schedules. Is it by choice, is it by necessity? And I think we heard there's some mix there. It's a strategy for one family. It's a way to get some supplemental income or even to move out of a shelter for two other families. So, I think trying to understand what families need can help us maybe broaden the solution. So, we recognize it's a gap in child care. But what else could be helpful for these families beyond just child care? And there might be something to really look at there, if this mother needs to be working two jobs to support her family and get out of a shelter. What does that say about job quality and other issues where we might want to just think more broadly?
Are there things that you think can be done that should be done now? Or are we, are we not at that stage?
I think there has to be a concerted effort bringing together of providers, those who deal with regulations, and parents, to figure out different models of ways this could work and room to pilot different options. Because, again, there might be certain regulations with timing and when providers can be open that there might need to be some experimenting to see how this could work and how it could work for families. And then we have, again, the subsidy system and how can that be used to support parents who need care during these different times? So, it really would need, I think, some collaboration and different actors at the table to try to figure out what would work.
We know there's not a one-size-fits-all, but it could be even more varied for parents who work nontraditional schedules. So how do you come up with solutions that have some flexibility built in when we're talking about the volume of people we're talking about and the number of children?
You've touched a little bit on the cost of this. And I think the animation, one of the purposes and what it achieves is showing the cost of it to individuals. Can you talk a little bit more about what that means for everyone? If these people, for instance, one woman can't work and she's in a shelter. There're societal costs here, aren't there? What's the broader cost of this gap?
I think that's a good question. So, I think there could be public costs of families who maybe could achieve self-sufficiency, as that woman, that mother, aspired to. But she's unable to because she's sort of stuck without access to formal care. So, I think the public cost one is a big one. I think there also could be some hidden costs, such as the mother whose children's grandmother watches six kids. Is that what that grandmother wants to be doing? Is there other things she could be doing with her time? So, there are those sorts of hidden costs that may be harder to quantify than the public costs, where we're talking about aspiring to a level of self-sufficiency that may be hindered because of not having access to formal care.
All right. Well, thanks a lot, Sarah, for talking to us.
Thanks for having me.
Here's the audio from the animation now. It's narrated by the Fed’s Gabriella Chiarenza. And check out the fully visualized feature at bostonfed.com/invested.
For most parents, access to high-quality child care is already a challenge. But securing reliable child care for young children outside the traditional 9-to-5 work hours is even more difficult. The equity implications are particularly troubling, since low-wage workers and workers of color are those most often needing care outside traditional hours.
We interviewed four mothers with at least one young child over the summer of 2021. We wanted to know: Do parents choose these schedules? Are jobs with nontraditional work hours the only options available to them?
How do they feel about the choices they must make in order to meet their care needs, and how do their families feel about the impact of these choices?
Our hope was to capture the experience of parents who grapple with this particular obstacle to inform better care solutions.
Each of the four moms we spoke with had different reasons for working nontraditional hours.
One new mom, Jeanne, said that changing to a job with nontraditional hours was actually an attempt to solve her child-care needs.
Jeanne had a graduate degree and previously held a leadership position, but changing her hours meant accepting a new role — which came with a significant pay cut. She deemed the added flexibility worth the loss of income, at least initially.
I provide child care throughout the whole middle of the day and then drop off my son to his father who provides child care in the evenings prior to me starting my workday.
So, I think when we were thinking about the time that we have available and the type of work that we both do, it made sense. Splitting your days sounds like a good idea. Four months into it and experiencing it, it's actually pretty hard.
We've also had a lot of conversations just about potentially hiring home-based care or doing a nanny or a nanny share. Those child-care providers are used to working like 8-to-4, 9-to-5. They're not necessarily looking to provide support from 2-to-9, because a lot of the nannies that we've spoken with have families of their own or obligations in the evening. So, some of the things we would have preferred to have done aren't actually compatible with the schedule that we have, which is why we've stayed at splitting days for as long as we have.
Working nontraditional hours helped Selena, a mom working in food service, for different reasons. Since one job didn’t pay enough to afford stable housing for herself and her family, she hoped to take on additional work after hours. But working a second job meant she would need access to reliable child care in the evening.
Currently I only work mornings because that's the only time I have child care. I need a night job to keep up with the bills and to even get an apartment, but I can't because there's no such thing as night care. So, it's tough when you need the care and it's not available.
It's most certainly stressful trying to find alternative care because you always risk losing your job. Being a single mother, it's very hard to try and juggle a job, keep the children safe and fed, while trying to maintain financial stability. I'm currently in a shelter. So, it's nearly impossible to try and secure a good job. It definitely sends me into panic attacks because when a last-minute callout happens like that, I just, it just gets me nervous on like, what can happen the next day? What if they can't go back, and I have to call out two days in a row?
Because in that moment, you just don't know who you can call, and then when you really have nobody, it's just like, “Wow, what am I going to do?” And you have no other choice but to just watch the kids for the day. It's depressing. It's stressful. It always has my anxiety on high alert. My kids are all I got.
For two other mothers, working nontraditional hours was partly the norm in their work areas. Jenna worked full time teaching ESL classes, while also teaching afternoon and evening classes to supplement her income.
I actually just today had to decline a class for the fall semester, because the class starts at 6, and daycare closes at 6, and my husband gets off work at 6. So, there's no way to make that work.
My schedule changes every couple of months. I had to just today write the dean and say, “I am not going to be able to accept this class because I am not able to pick my son up late from day care, and my husband isn't able to either.” And I asked, “Can I bring my son to class for the first 20 minutes until my husband can pick him up?” Of course, it was a no. So, I unfortunately had to turn that class down. And that's a really big deal because this is where I get a lot of the money to, like, pay my student loans, right? That's my extra. So yeah, it's an extra job that maybe one could argue, “Oh, you don't need it.” Yeah, I do actually.
There is absolutely a vulnerability to the situation, even when you have child care, because there are so many contingencies that could go wrong. I would need day cares that are more flexible with pickups, drop-offs, and their opening hours. I understand that they can't necessarily do that, but I find it hard to understand that there are just no options for that, that are … like, how come there's no daycare that caters to that? What about shift workers, right? Not to mention people who work until 10, which many of my students do. So, I know that there's a need for this. How is that not part of the market?
Melissa, a single mother of six children, worked evenings as a technician in a hospital emergency department. Her shifts were dictated by the needs of the hospital and varied week to week, including late-night shifts, so she relied heavily on her mother for child care to fill in gaps not covered by school or day care hours.
My mom is very helpful, but she is a lot older. Her kids are already grown, so she looks at it as it's her time to kind of have her alone time and relax. And I have a lot of kids, so I can understand that part, but at the same time I have to work.
At work, there is no onsite child-care services, which is unfortunate, because they do give us a hard time about switching our schedules or if we have a last-minute callout or adjust it in some kind of way.
I often feel like I have a very heavy weight on me. I have six little people that rely on me. Unfortunately, I do care for them on my own. I do have a good relationship with my mom. My mom does help me because she's my mom, but it's like pulling teeth. I don't like to ask her for help because it's that situation. I do wish day care was a little bit more available for different hours.
The working moms we spoke to long for a child-care system that allows flexibility, so they can contribute to their families’ economic security without the need to make difficult concessions.
The way child care is funded in this country, through a mostly private market, constrains the supply of accessible high-quality care, even during traditional hours. Parents whose work hours mean they need child care outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workday often find there are no child care centers offering care during those hours and must rely instead on family or other providers.
My daycare person that I have, she's wonderful. I love her. My kids love her, but I just wish that there were some more resources, especially for the weekends, longer hours. So that way I didn't have to bother my family or hire someone else to take care of my kids. I definitely would use it. I wouldn't have to hear the lectures from my mom or the complaining, which would be great. And it would be reliable. I wouldn't have to worry as much.
I had to turn down many jobs because I didn't have the support or the child care being open that late. So, I feel like maybe if day cares were open until like maybe 6 or 7, for parents who get out during that rush hour, are able to, and, you know, don't have to take down job opportunities because they close so early.
Not having a support system at all has definitely stopped me from achieving goals that I want to achieve. And you know, as a mom, it hurts to say that, because in a way it sounds like, oh my gosh, my kids are in the way of me achieving my goal. But you know, a little help can go such a long way.
I so strongly believe part of the solution to the child-care problem in this country is flexible working options, because some women do want to work a full-time schedule, or even more than full time, and they should have available, affordable, accessible child care. And I should not be forced to choose between being an employee and a parent and doing both of those well.
Access to reliable and safe child-care options outside of traditional work hours would be a life-changing support for these mothers and their families, enabling them to keep their kids well cared for and to fully participate in the economy. Employer policies and flexibility also have potential to offer more support to parents working nontraditional schedules.
These parents’ stories are unique and only give us a small window into families’ needs. More research is needed to better understand what motivates needing care during these times and what supports parents would utilize in order to rightsize policy and solutions.
Thank you for listening to Six Hundred Atlantic. As always, you can find more information on everything discussed today on our website. Visit bostonfed.org/sixhundredatlantic, where you can check out other interviews, as well as our seasons. And while you’re there, subscribe to our email lists to stay informed of upcoming episodes. And please don’t forget to rate, review, share, and subscribe on your favorite podcast app. I’m Jay Lindsay, signing off on this episode of Six Hundred Atlantic. Thanks for listening.