Making Child Care Work Beyond 9 to 5

A child in bed with a teddy bear.

A few months ago I headed to Bright Beginnings at the end of my workday to volunteer with their evening program. When I arrived at 6 p.m., two teachers were serving dinner to a table of about 10 toddlers and prekindergarteners. I sat down and received a warm welcome. No stranger to new people, a chorus of sweet voices began interrogating me—“Can you sit next to me instead?” and “Do you want some of my salad?” After dinner, the teachers helped the children throw away their plates, wash their hands, and head across the room for story time. Then we played with Legos and Picasso Tiles. The children built houses and castles, and their teachers guided them in sharing and taking turns with their peers.

Around 7 p.m., some of the children started asking what time they were getting picked up. One grandfather came just as evening snack time was wrapping up to take his grandson home. As one teacher made sure each toddler had a clean diaper, the other one set up little cots throughout the room and dimmed the lights. By 7:30 p.m., all of the children were laying on their cots, most of their eyes closed. Some fell asleep quickly while others tossed and turned and asked for their moms. Teachers knew which children needed a back rub to fall asleep and which wanted to hear a song. As the children were dozing off, one brother-and-sister pair whispered excitedly when their mom entered the room. Still in her uniform, she had just finished her shift for UPS and was taking them home for the evening.

While my volunteer shift ended by 8 p.m., the center remained open for several more hours. By offering evening care until 11:30 p.m., Bright Beginnings is one of just 39 licensed child care providers in D.C. that stays open during nontraditional hours to accommodate parent work schedules—a small portion of the more than 460 licensed providers in the district.

On any given weekday evening when most young children are finishing up dinner at home, taking a bath, and having story time before being tucked into their beds, the children in the evening care program at Bright Beginnings are winding down in their classroom. Bright Beginnings is an early care and education center in D.C. that serves children from 6 weeks to 5 years old whose families are struggling with homelessness.

Finding care that aligns with work schedules is especially difficult for parents in low-wage industries who are more likely to work night shifts, weekends, and extended hours. Parents who work during the day and pursue education at night also need child care during these off hours. And many low-wage workers have the added obstacle of unpredictable scheduling, which means minimal time to plan for child care in advance. Finding coverage for shifts during these nontraditional and nonstandard hours can also be difficult when family conflicts arise.

Estimates find that about 20 percent of American workers have nontraditional schedules. In 2016, Child Care Aware reported that 65,000 families in 28 states requested nontraditional-hour care. The need for care during nontraditional hours is likely to become more acute: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that occupations with nontraditional hours will see the most employment growth by 2020. And yet the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education data reveal that a mere 8 percent of early education and care centers provided care during nontraditional hours: Only 2 percent offered care in the evening, 6 percent offered overnight care, and 3 percent offered care on weekends.

So what do parents do? Some parents utilize family child care providers who are more likely than centers to provide care during these hours. Others rely on informal arrangements with family members, friends, and neighbors. While these might be convenient options for parents working nontraditional hours, studies have found that these providers typically spend little time on learning activities with children. Center-based education and care are strongly associated with better child outcomes.

And being able to stay with one provider all day, from the traditional hours into the nontraditional, also provides consistency for children. And there are benefits to having a single, consistent child care provider. One study found that for young children, having more child care arrangements was associated with “increases in children’s concurrent behavior problems and decreases in prosocial behaviors, particularly among girls and younger children.”

Like many children in poverty, children at Bright Beginnings have experienced significant levels of trauma, and continuity is especially important. As Darin Allen, director of development at Bright Beginnings, explained, the center tries to be a “one-stop shop” for families. He says, “Parents know that if the child is in our care from 7 a.m.–11:30 p.m., they will get five meals a day and the proper amount of rest and care. Parents sometimes stop by between jobs or before class, but leave their kids in the center instead of moving to a different provider.”

For the families at Bright Beginnings who are struggling to find stable housing, this consistency is priceless: Maintaining employment is essential to getting back on their feet, and it’s almost impossible to do that without affordable, quality child care. In a 2016 report, nearly half of mothers working in the restaurant industry were reprimanded at work due to difficulties arranging child care. The Urban Institute found that many low-income parents had no choice other than to quit or be fired due to inflexible child care arrangements.

Misalignment of child care and work schedules doesn’t just mean missed shifts for parents, but also more absences for children. Absences can be detrimental to children’s growth and development, especially in pre-K, where better attendance is associated with kindergarten readiness. And students who were frequently absent in pre-K are more likely to continue this pattern in kindergarten and beyond.

There are other ways the lack of options for nontraditional child care reproduces inequality between families: Working parents are often forced to choose between program quality and convenience. A recent study by the Urban Institute examining workforce quality in center-based programs found that staff in centers with nontraditional hours “have much lower levels of formal education and participate in professional organizations at lower rates.” More than 30 percent of these teachers only had a high school diploma or less. Centers that allowed for more flexible schedules or payment plans, which better accommodate parents with unpredictable work schedules, were also found to have teachers with lower levels of education and professional learning.

Part of the challenge with increasing access to and quality of nontraditional hours of care is that it’s expensive to provide. It’s difficult to find providers who choose or are able to work through the night—especially considering that many early educators have children of their own at home. And, until recently, it hasn’t been given attention by lawmakers. But that is changing.

In the 2014 reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG, the main vehicle through which lower-income families receive child care assistance, federal policymakers acknowledged the importance of expanding access to child care during nontraditional hours. The law did not include additional funding for this type of care. But now, thanks to a doubling of child care funding in the omnibus spending bill passed in March, there are federal dollars available to enable programs to extend their hours.

A bill introduced by top Democrats in both the House and Senate last year would go even further. The aptly named Child Care for Working Families Act outlines multiple measures to improve access to nontraditional-hour care, such as offering additional funds to providers serving this population. It also would require states to outline specific standards for this type of care, recognizing that these providers face unique challenges. While this bill hasn’t been voted on, it shows where Democratic priorities around child care lie and offers potential ideas to states as they decide how to use the influx of CCDBG funding.

States can also take steps to improve access to nontraditional hours of care. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 Women’s Agenda includes the creation of a Child Care Availability Task Force responsible for surveying access to nontraditional-hour care. Understanding the landscape and identifying where more nontraditional care is needed is an important first step. States can also create incentives for businesses to play a role. Employers with a large number of employees working nontraditional hours can help cover the cost of child care. Investing in employees’ child care may help businesses limit absences and reduce turnover.

States should also acknowledge that many parents will continue to choose family child care providers or informal care, especially for overnight care, and take steps to improve the quality of these settings. They can provide free professional learning to educators working nontraditional hours, regardless of setting. They can also provide wage supplements for educators working overnight or increase the child care–subsidy-reimbursement rate during nontraditional hours to encourage centers to keep their lights on longer.

As the nature of work in the United States continues to change, it’s important that policymakers are starting to consider how families’ needs for child care change as well. But efforts to improve access to this care must take into account the full needs of working families, and that means addressing more than just affordability.