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The coronavirus crisis is hitting childcare workers especially hard

As families try to limit their exposure to coronavirus, the childcare industry is becoming collateral damage. Five daycare workers and nannies share how they’re making ends meet.

The coronavirus crisis is hitting childcare workers especially hard
[Photo: Dieny Portinanni/Unsplash]

Between school closures and shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of COVID-19, parents across the country are now quarantined with their children. For those who have the ability to work from home, this has meant juggling a variety of roles in addition to their full-time jobs.

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Under normal circumstances, they might outsource this work to childcare providers. And for many parents with essential jobs who don’t have the luxury of working from home, from doctors to grocery store employees, that has been the case. But as other families self-isolate, many parents have pulled their children out of daycare and dismissed their nannies. And childcare workers are feeling the ripple effects.

“Sadly, we’re seeing a lot of families either having to reduce their nanny’s hours or just let their nanny go altogether,” says Katie Provinziano, the founder and CEO of Westside Nannies, a nanny agency based in Los Angeles. “Every single day since this has started, we’ve had nannies calling us and telling us they were laid off. Even just 20 minutes ago, a nanny we had placed with a family said they laid off all staff members until June. A lot of it is because [our clients] themselves aren’t working.”

Meanwhile, countless daycares have had little recourse due to falling attendance and health concerns, which have all but forced them to close their doors. States such as Massachusetts have issued orders to shutter the majority of childcare centers, aside from providing for essential workers. And there’s no telling if affected workers will recover: In a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, nearly a third of childcare providers said they wouldn’t survive a shutdown that exceeded two weeks without public assistance. “These people have families,” Provinziano says. “They have bills to pay. And they often live paycheck to paycheck.”

Many of the childcare workers who remain employed are making it possible for doctors and nurses and other essential workers to do their jobs, even if it means putting themselves at risk. “In terms of nannies that are working for healthcare professionals, we are really talking to them and consider that they are frontline workers,” Provinziano says. “You might be in a position where both parents are working in places where they could be exposed to it on a daily basis. And I think that’s even harder right now with the lack of supplies. They are really putting their lives on the line, and as a result, that comes back to the nanny.”

We talked to five childcare providers across the U.S., from nannies who are supporting healthcare workers to women running daycare centers, about how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted their working lives and how they are navigating their new reality.

“If I don’t work for one day, then I can’t eat that day.”

Monica Sanchez, 45, works for two families in San Jose, California. When the shelter-in-place order was handed down last Monday, they asked her to stay home. Sanchez, who earns about $800 a week and doesn’t have any paid time off or sick leave, told her employers she wouldn’t be able to feed herself if she suddenly lost her income for weeks on end. “The truth is that it would have been really tough,” Sanchez said, through a translator. “I wouldn’t have been able to make it. If they had cut my hours, it would have affected me emotionally and economically.”

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And so her employers decided that Sanchez would continue to be paid, at least for the time being. “If I don’t work for one day, then I can’t eat that day,” she says. “I had a really honest conversation with them. The agreement we came to is that I’ll still be paid for 40 hours. But when I come back, I’ll pay it back in time. I’ll add two more hours to my workload every day, but that will be free because they’re paying me in advance.”

Sanchez knows making up the time won’t be easy when she goes back to work. “I know I may be tired later on, working these extra hours,” she says. “But I’m really glad they didn’t just fire me.” Sanchez knows other nannies who have been let go or have no choice but to commute to and from their employer. She believes the families she works for are doing the best they can given their own circumstances.

“I feel we came to a fair agreement,” she says of her primary employer. “The mom works hourly, and the husband has his own business and had three clients cancel on him, so they’re also facing financial difficulties. If the mom doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid either. So when I come back to work for them, I’m going to help them by working the extra two hours while they get their finances in check.”

But if the quarantines extend well beyond April, Sanchez isn’t sure what that will mean for her. “I don’t know if the families I work for would have the financial capacity to continue to support me because it would also affect them,” she says. “I don’t want this to go on because everyone is hurting. I really want assistance from the government, for everyone.”

“If I stayed here, I don’t even think I could find other work right now.”

For many nannies who are still working in the time of coronavirus, staying employed has necessitated either opting into a live-in arrangement or providing for the children of essential workers, many of whom are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Two weeks ago, the family that employs Melissa Lozano, a nanny in Los Altos, California, headed to Montana. Their initial plan was to return by April 6, and in the interim, they would continue paying Lozano.

“When we checked back in, they said, ‘We’re not sure if we’re coming back until August,'” Lozano says. “And they didn’t say anything about continuation of pay if they didn’t need me. Everything was kind of up in the air.”

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Then they bought a house—and asked Lozano to move in. For childcare providers with families of their own or other obligations, this might present an impossible choice. But for Lozano, who is single and has no children, the decision was clear. “It’s not difficult for me in the way of leaving my own family behind,” she says. “I’m very flexible.” But even if she had a partner, Lozano says she would probably have to make the tough choice to uproot her life. “If I stayed here, I don’t even think I could find other work right now,” she says. “I think you either go and get paid, or don’t go and don’t get paid. And that would almost be harder.”

As the nanny to a family with two essential healthcare workers—a pharmacist and an emergency-room doctor who works directly with COVID-19 patients—Amanda Murray, 25, knows she is putting herself at increased risk. “I’m worried not about myself, but about spreading it to someone who’s more compromised,” she says. “That definitely makes me nervous. So I’ve stayed away from all my family and really just isolated myself. When I get home, all my clothes go straight into the wash, and my shoes stay outside. I go straight into the shower.”

Murray usually supplements her income by sitting for other families on the side, which she is no longer able to do, given her potential exposure to coronavirus. So to make up the lost income, she teaches online classes in the evenings. Her hours as a nanny are also shifting, as her employer is forced to spend more and more time at the hospital, attending to patients with COVID-19. And her employer’s family has a game plan for how they will proceed if any of them contract the virus: Murray will move into their home temporarily and shift to a live-in arrangement.

Despite the risks, Murray believes she is providing a critical service—that her work as a nanny enables someone else to help coronavirus patients.”It’s even been a little emotional,” she says of the experience. “Obviously it is hard on mom because she realizes she has two babies she’s putting at risk. But also the way we’ve all been able to connect—it’s a bond that will never be broken. This is beyond a job now. She needs to be in the hospital to help people, and I’m the vehicle to help her do that.”

“I feel super lucky that the parents are aware of the fact that I need to make a living too.”

Only two families still bring their children to the home of Shawnna Ryan, an educator in Bozeman, Montana. Like other childcare providers, Ryan has revamped her cleaning and disinfection routine, even without a full house. To accommodate a deep clean before and after children are in her home, Ryan has shaved off two hours from her daily work schedule. “And we’ve taken extra precautions during the day,” she says. “We wash hands as soon as the kids come in. We check temperatures.”

One thing that gives Ryan pause is that her mother, who lives with her, helps run the daycare. “My mother is in the at-risk category, so that is definitely a little concerning,” she says. “Nobody wants to get this. It sounds awful.”

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But for Ryan, the financial impact of losing business from families who are keeping their kids home has been mitigated by their generosity. “I work with such great families,” she says. “They’ve all paid for the next month fully. And all of them have reached out and told me, ‘We really appreciate you, and we don’t want you to get hit because we’ve decided to keep our kids home.’ So I feel super lucky that the parents are aware of the fact that I need to make a living too.”

As an educator who belongs to the MyVillage network of home-based care providers, Ryan would have a financial cushion even without the support of families. With an assist from impact investors, MyVillage recently put together a relief fund: In the event of a suspected case of coronavirus, parents will be reimbursed for half the cost of tuition, while MyVillage providers are compensated for the full cost of shutting down their daycare.

Ryan knows she has a safety net that few other daycare providers do. “I feel extremely grateful,” she says. “During tough times, you really get to see who cares. You see who wants to keep the community going. It’s so heartwarming.”

“We’re all asking ourselves: Will we be able to reopen?”

For the last few weeks, Kirsten Lance has tried to keep her doors open for parents and employees alike. Lance operates three daycare centers across Thurston County in Washington—which encompasses the state’s capital, Olympia—and oversees 43 employees and well over 200 children. In Washington, childcare was deemed an essential service. But between struggling to find supplies and losing business as parents pulled their kids out of daycare, Lance says it simply isn’t sustainable to stay open any longer.

“It’s really hard because we have [parents who are] nurses and doctors and first responders,” Lance says. “But we’re running out of things. Gloves and toiletries are minimal. The other day, it was crackers.” With the overhead costs of her business, Lance can’t afford to pay all her employees when she’s not at full capacity. Her largest daycare center is licensed to care for nearly a hundred children. But when we spoke this week, Lance said there were just 13 kids in attendance—three of whom were the children of employees. By the end of the week, all three of her centers will be closed.

“My bills don’t stop,” she says. “I have three buildings with lease payments of $20,000. I have employees that I feel I have to protect. I feel like I have to be here with them in the centers. Why should I not be working if I’m making them work? I’m putting them in danger—and I have a heart condition, so I’m putting myself in danger.” The state has offered little financial reprieve, Lance says, despite childcare being an essential service. “What really, really gets me is: These women who are working for me and have families are only getting anywhere from $188 to $247 a week [from] unemployment.” For many of Lance’s employees, a month’s worth of unemployment checks would amount to less than what they would ordinarily receive in a single paycheck.

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“I have employees who have been tested,” she says. “I have employees that are out and sick and cannot work, which is putting us all in danger, along with the children. I just can’t do it. I’m tired and I’ve been trying, and I just feel like there’s a lack of support. There’s been a lack of support in the childcare industry for years, but it’s gotten much worse.”

Lance hopes that she’ll be able to reopen in a few weeks, even if that means operating just one location with fewer staff members. Still, for Lance and her peers, the future is uncertain. “By closing, I’m trying to protect the business because if I continue payroll, I’m not going to be able to make ends meet after two months,” she says. “We’re all asking ourselves: Will we be able to reopen?”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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