NEWS

Labor Shortages Leave Parents Who Need to Work Scrambling to Find Childcare

Kids and teacher at childcare facility

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Key Takeaways

  • Labor shortages, unplanned closures, and expensive costs are causing parents to scramble for childcare options.
  • Parents may be dealing with anxiety over trying to work and make a living without a daycare solution for their child.
  • Being vocal about the need for additional government funds, and considering a co-op with family and friends, are solutions that may help with the childcare problem.

After homeschooling her children from March 2020 to September 2021 due to pandemic-related school closings, journalist Meg St-Esprit looked forward to them being able to go back in person. Her twin second graders and fourth-grader went back to public school this year, while her 3-year-old started daycare. The return to in-person schooling would allow her to get back to her full-time career. Then a COVID-19 exposure led to a two-week closure at her 3-year-old’s preschool, and it wreaked havoc with her ability to work.

“I had to let several assignments go because I couldn’t find any solution otherwise," she says. "It was terrible." Though she appreciates and understands taking the appropriate precautions with COVID-19, it made her ability to work difficult and came at a significant cost. “Over the course of 2020 to 2021, we estimate our family lost close to $50,000 in income due to my lack of childcare, particularly during the time we homeschooled,” she says.

Meg St-Esprit

Over the course of 2020 to 2021, we estimate our family lost close to $50,000 in income due to my lack of childcare, particularly during the time we homeschooled.

— Meg St-Esprit

Whether parents work for a company contemplating a hybrid work model, or they have created a workplace solution with an at-home office, the same unintended obstruction still remains—the stress of not having childcare. The childcare issue is far-reaching, impacting the parents of children who need to be home during virtual school, as well as parents of little ones too young for school.

There are many reasons parents are having problems finding childcare options, and it's taking a mental and emotional toll. However, there are some practical steps parents who are faced with this situation can take. 

Problems with Finding Childcare

Most parents know the feeling of scrambling for childcare at one time or another. The situation becomes more urgent when the need for childcare is tied to the ability to work. With more people jumping back into the workforce to earn a living, they can feel stretched trying to figure out how to juggle it all.  

Experts say problems with childcare started in April 2020, with widespread workplace and school closures due to COVID-19. Daycare centers soon followed. When incremental openings were permitted, decreased capacities and distancing requirements still left a huge void. “If [a daycare center] was licensed for 10 [kids], they could have five," explained Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association. "And so, between all of those variables, most childcare centers were averaging about 30% utilized."

Lehnhoff notes that in May 2021 she noticed children trickling back to centers in greater numbers. Although the kids were coming back, the workers weren’t. “[Many centers] had to stop taking children because they didn’t get back their whole workforce,” Lehnhoff explains. “We lost about a third of our workforce at the beginning of COVID-19 in April 2020. We didn’t get them back.”

If available daycare slots are dwindling away, that can leave parents stuck trying to find other options. While some families may have backup childcare in place, not every family does—meaning no daycare prevents them from working.

The Prohibitive Cost of Childcare

A poll conducted jointly with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points out that childcare costs and availability are impacting parents’ ability to work. It is an ongoing cycle.

“The cost of childcare in my area is staggering," says Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, LCPC, an early childhood mental health therapist and consultant in Maryland. "At many places, it can be the equivalent of a mortgage payment."

Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, LCPC

The cost of childcare in my area is staggering. At many places, it can be the equivalent of a mortgage payment.

— Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, LCPC

“Among households with young children—4 and under—34% report they have experienced serious problems getting childcare in the past few months when adults needed to work,” states Mary Findling, PhD, the assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one of the researchers who worked on the poll.

Keeping the mortgage paid, utilities on, and the children safe is a mental and emotional balancing act for parents.

The Mental and Emotional Toll of Lacking Childcare

A study released earlier this year found that childcare issues contributed to parents’ mental health strain during the pandemic. Many parents are stretched as they deal with COVID-19 and keeping the family healthy. Add in the fact that a parent may not be able to reliably show up to work because of childcare needs, and it can quickly spiral out of control.

Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC

Not only do you have the anxiety of securing daycare arrangements but there is [also] anxiety about the stability of those arrangements.

— Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC

“The biggest emotional toll this obstacle has is the anxiety that it can cause," explains Olivia Chante Frazier, LPC, NCC, the CEO of Transform You. "Most families are already impacted by the effects of COVID, so not only do you have the anxiety of securing daycare arrangements but there is [also] anxiety about the stability of those arrangements."

The weight parents feel includes concerns for their children’s mental health. In the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll, 36% of households with children under 18 reported that their children experienced serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress, or serious problems sleeping in the past few months. "So not only are parents managing all of these other stressors, but they are also trying to help their children cope during this very difficult time,” Dr. Findling notes.

With the buildup of stressors and no clear end to the pandemic in sight, finding practical ways to cope with challenges and childcare issues is key.

Real Solutions to a Real Problem

Navigating these situations can be frustrating for parents who don’t have access to reliable childcare, don’t have the finances to hire tutors or nannies, and can’t afford to miss time from work to take care of their kids. But there are potential solutions. Experts offer advice to try to alleviate some of the pressure.

Form a Co-op

You can consider forming a co-op with friends or neighbors who may be in a similar dilemma—whether trying to find childcare for younger children or kids who are schooling virtually. One parent may be able to watch the children on a consistent basis or might even consider getting credentials to become a licensed childcare facility. That person can provide a supportive environment, easing the stress of both parent and child.

Work Alternating Hours

Though this solution can be grueling on attempts to spend time together, adult caregivers can work opposite shifts, so someone is always at home with the children. Experts note this approach is common for nurses and many workers in the medical field.

Get Involved and Get Vocal

Reach out to your local and federal government leaders to drive home the importance of additional funds to help take care of kids. “We need to nationally subsidize childcare; that’s the solution," St-Esprit notes. "Only 4% of qualifying families can actually get a spot in subsidized childcare programs. The only way to fix this is with an influx of funds from the government."

Your daily routine may include your child taking lessons in the background of your Zoom calls or feeding a toddler while writing a work report. With childcare options being scarce and work being a necessity, it’s important to adjust to what is quickly becoming our new normal. “Work-life, home-life doesn’t exist anymore," St-Esprit concludes. "It’s all one."

What This Means For You

Parents work hard at juggling their careers while making sure their children are taken care of. It becomes more challenging when an important piece of the puzzle, like childcare, is no longer as reliable as it once was. Labor shortages, rising costs, unplanned closures, and COVID-19-related distancing requirements can make it difficult to find the right place to care for your child. Seeking support from family and friends and making alternative arrangements may help with a temporary solution to a burgeoning problem.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment situation - November 2021.

  2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Experiences of U.S. households with children during the Delta variant outbreak.

  3. Cheng Z, Mendolia S, Paloyo AR, Savage DA, Tani M. Working parents, financial insecurity, and childcare: mental health in the time of COVID-19 in the UK. Rev Econ Househ. 2021:1-22. doi:10.1007%2Fs11150-020-09538-3